"Fruitvale Station" is hugely effective meat-and-potatoes moviemaking, and one hell of a feature film debut for writer-director Ryan Coogler.
Lean (84 minutes), swift and full of life, Coogler's picture recounts a random and needless death, that of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, a familiar face from "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights" and the films "Chronicle" and "Red Tails."
At 2:15 a.m. Jan. 1, 2009, the unarmed victim was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman on an Oakland, Calif., Fruitvale station platform. There were witnesses, lots of them, many taking cellphone videos of the incident.
The movie makes no secret of Oscar's fate. Coogler could've settled for an enraging, full-throttle melodrama, designed to boil your blood from beginning to end. But "Fruitvale Station" is better, more heartbreaking, than that.
The script follows a well-worn pattern: We spend approximately 24 hours with Oscar before the shooting, as he skitters from one part of his life to another. He's stepping out on his girlfriend, Sophina (a smashingly good and naturalistically attuned Melonie Diaz), but there's enough glue in their relationship, it seems, to make it stick, and for Oscar to keep their 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in the true north position of his compass.
Oscar's life in and out of prison has been a trial for his mother (Octavia Spencer, note-perfect), whose birthday is Dec. 31. In the hours leading up to the fateful BART ride back from San Francisco on New Year's Eve, Oscar spends time with his drug dealer associate and swings by to pick up a cake and some seafood for his grandmother's gumbo.
"Fruitvale Station" works because Coogler and his leading man present a many-sided protagonist, neither saint nor unalloyed sinner. He struggles to find legal work and to keep it once he's found it; likewise, and not easily, he juggles his old hell-raising self with his responsibilities as a lover, a father and a son.
When "Fruitvale Station" goes where it must go, to that train platform (Kevin Durand plays a fictionalized version of the transit cop who pulled the trigger), the knot tightens in your gut. You hope for an impossible resolution to the scene. You may also find yourself hoping that the film itself doesn't blow it — that it doesn't push the anguish and outrage into operatic or phony realms. Coogler does not blow it (though there's a coda or two too many in the final 10 minutes). His success with the film overall, which is considerable, lies in his easy way with extended takes, allowing two or more actors to actually interact and get a rhythm going. Jordan, Diaz and Spencer, among others, are superb throughout. The film was shot quickly, on an extremely modest budget. The breathlessness feels right, and true.
"Fruitvale Station" won two major awards at last year's Sundance Film Festival and went on to pick up a prize for its presence in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival. It remains to be seen what Coogler can do with different kinds of stories. But he knows where to put a camera, and how long to hold a shot, and what it means to have terrific performers igniting a scene. In the wake of last year's Trayvon Martin killing, and this month's George Zimmerman trial verdict, the movie carries an added layer of resonance. But "Fruitvale Station" didn't require the killing of another unarmed African-American to make it one of the truly vital films of 2013.
'Fruitvale Station' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some violence, language throughout and some drug use)
Running time: 1:24