Fruitvale Station begins with some blurry footage. Taken with a camera phone it’s difficult to make out faces, but what’s clear is that there’s a disagreement and the police are involved. There is loud shouting, and widespread confusion. But the conclusion is unmistakable. Someone gets shot by police. Fruitvale Station, which was written and directed by Ryan Coogler and is his debut feature-length film, follows Oscar Grant on his last day before he was fatally shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland, California. Emotionally moving, powerfully acted and confidently executed, the film is a resounding success.
It is New Year’s Eve 2008. Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) is currently living with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their young daughter. The film follows Oscar as he goes about a seemingly normal day: dropping his daughter off at school, going to the supermarket, buying his mother (Octavia Spencer) a birthday card for the dinner they are to have at her house. Struggling with finances and resolving to make a fresh start for the new year, Oscar also attempts to regain his old job. There is a subtle air of foreboding throughout the film, but the sequence of events does not come across as contrived. They are more akin to a collection of vignettes, providing glimpses and personal insights into the life and personality of Oscar Grant.
The performances are all impressive. Jordan puts in an astounding performance. He imbues Oscar with a charismatic ease and a charming humour, who is playful with his girlfriend and utterly devoted to his daughter. He is, by no means however, completely deserving of our sympathy; he has a wandering eye, and is prone to angry outbursts. And Jordan seamlessly navigates through these different layers. Diaz is raw and utterly convincing as a woman under a lot of pressure, and Spencer is fantastic as a tough but nurturing mother.
Equally impressive is Coogler’s direction. Filmed with a handheld camera, Coogler adeptly creates an atmosphere of subtle intimacy around Oscar’s last moments. Additionally, it is a credit to Coogler that knowing the ending does not detract from its emotional impact. In fact, it only seems to heighten the film’s emotional intensity, and render more tragic the knowledge that a young man’s life was ended so abruptly and so unfairly. Fruitvale Station is a stunning portrait and an incredibly moving experience, and memorable for all the right reasons.
Fruitvale Station screened at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival and will be in Australian cinemas on 7 November through Roadshow Films.