It's New Year's Eve 2009. Oscar, a young man with a daughter and a troubled past, is planning a series of celebrations. His mother's birthday is December 31 and he's going with his friends and girlfriend to San Francisco afterwards to watch the fireworks at midnight. A cascade of bad events falls upon Oscar the last day of the year, but he's hopeful that a train ride for New Year's will be the start of a better life. Fruitvale Station is based on a recent true crime story put to rest by cellphones. Bystanders at the scene of the crime recorded everything that happened. Without cellphones, the case might not have been resolved and it definitely would not have received the attention needed to begin major safety reforms to a public transportation system.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler hitches Fruitvale Station to cellphone technology. Whenever Oliver uses his phone, a blue screen pops up with the names and then autocorrecting text from the phone. It's a well-used stylistic affect that foreshadows the big climax to the story.
Unfortunately, that commitment to cellphone technology gets in the way before it can even help the story. One of the first moments in the film is grainy cellphone footage of the crime. It's quite clear what happened. Perhaps too clear. It cuts tension immediately rather than building tension. There's no sense of anticipation from the start if we know exactly what's going to happen. That there was an easy workaround to create more suspense--there are a lot of cellphones that record the climax that could have been edited together to create a chaotic flash of foreshadowing--is a huge missed opportunity.
This is a minor hiccup in a film that gets so much right. The second half of Fruitvale Station is perhaps one of the most suspenseful ripped from the headlines stories since United 93. It's a dark and anxious turn in a film that spends a long time building up this flawed but likable character in Oscar. It goes from slice of life character study to dark crime thriller with dozens of players involved. It's cinematic whiplash that leaves you disoriented and begging for closure this story cannot provide.
The acting is strong all around. Michael B. Jordan does a lot with Oscar, a character reduced to a struggling everyman in the present by the screenplay for stylistic effect. Octavia Spencer proves a shrewd and compassionate observer as Oscar's mother. She pays witness to his past and present hoping to steer him to a better future. Melonie Diaz is heartbreaking as Oscar's put-upon girlfriend who has to give him reality check after reality check about what he's really doing with his life. Even little Ariana Neal as their daughter does a lot of emotional heavy lifting in her scenes with Jordan and Diaz. It's a perfect ensemble cast that never allows Fruitvale Station to be poisoned with melodrama.
Fruitvale Station is a raw and exciting film from a writer/director we should all be looking out for. The biggest flaw is ambition, telling a story cemented in cellphone technology with cellphone technology in the forefront.
Thoughts on Fruitvale Station? Share them below.