Fruitvale Station

25 Jul

I don’t know if I have a lot to say about Fruitvale Station. It’s one of those movies that critics like to talk and write about. It was at Sundance and Cannes and critics have been talking about it since. I think for the intelligentsia the movie is old news and it hasn’t even opened nationwide yet. Most of what I’m going to write is little more than a summary of other reviews. Wesley Morris at Grantland wrote the best thing I’ve read. He also weaves in some Trayvon Martin/President Obama stuff in a way that worked well. I don’t have anything to add to that angle.

On the other hand, I feel like this is the one movie where I might be expected to have a strong opinion or have something interesting to say. This movie is set in my neighborhood. It’s (indirectly) about large social issues that Oakland is often at the epicenter of. Issues that someone smart might be able to say something deep about. Should I have some profound insight into “what this movie is about” because I live across the street from the hospital where Oscar Grant died? Is it a personal failing to avoid the inevitable political questions raised by the movie even though I sometimes board BART trains at Fruitvale? I don’t know.

On the topic of political questions, I’ll repeat what most other reviewers have said. I was expecting this movie to be overt. Polemical. I expected to see a much more negative depiction of the poor sections of the East Bay and the impact of crime/poverty/racism/police on people living in them. That wasn’t at all the case. Naturalistic is an overused new buzzword in film criticism, but I think it fits here as well as it fits anywhere. Where the movie is contrived and emotionally manipulative, it’s in the service of character development, not social conditions or race relations. That was a very pleasant surprise.

This was an intense movie. It opens with a clip of the most famous cell phone video of the Oscar Grant shooting. It then goes back and covers the day leading up to it. The tension builds and builds as the inevitable ending approaches. The tone and pacing were generally very restrained. I was very impressed by the director Ryan Coogler. He didn’t try to score easy emotional points–the prison flashback was the only place where the emotion was really dialed up before the big climax. I thought that was the perfect strategy. By not creating points for the audience to release tension throughout, he kept it building. And it did build. The big BART platform scene was executed really well. That’s a big feat since that scene is so well-known at this point. And even here, there was no big catharsis. People forget that Mr. Grant didn’t die until the next morning. The overnight hospital waiting room sequence was very strong. This is where the emotion all came out. There was a fair crowd in theater when I saw the movie, and there were a lot of people audibly crying. That is not a common occurrence at the movies. At least not at the movies I go to. And then it was over. There was a little title-card epilogue, but there was no depiction of the aftermath. That was a very smart decision. That’s where things could have gotten away from the director and made for a muddy unfocused movie. Once more, this was an intense movie.

Three plot contrivances detracted from things. The dog at the gas station, the fish fry girl who reappears, and the prison guy who reappears. They all felt unnecessary and distracting. It wasn’t a perfect movie. Most of the non-perfection comes from little things like this that are maybe a little too on-the-nose. The intent was obviously to capture real life in a realistic way, and real life is messy. Always. Sometimes Mr. Coogler shied away from that. I can understand why he did things the way he did for the sake of the narrative and keeping things interesting, but it didn’t always work. Maybe some of the problem was the choice to dramatize a single day. That’s an unexpected way to tell this story, and overall I think it was a very good decision, but the fact is that any single day doesn’t have all that much drama in it. Maybe things would have been boring if not for the little narrative touches. I don’t know.

A few local notes. My understanding of and appreciation for this movie was most definitely enhanced because I live in Oakland. Mr. Coogler is from Oakland and did a very good job of creating a sense of place and placing the story in a geographic context that I thought added to it. I know I wouldn’t feel that as strongly if I’d seen this movie before I moved here. Little things like street signs are a nice touch wherever a movie is set. That this was all filmed on location was apparent. That always adds a bit of juice. My fear going in was that there was going to be a lot of depressing East Oakland footage–some ”look how terrible the ghetto is” kind of nonsense. As I mentioned earlier there wasn’t any of that. Oakland as I know it was very well-portrayed. It’s a beautiful city. There are big industrial zones. There’s a lot of graffiti. Etc. One thing that I thought was a perfect touch was the repeated use of BART trains. Both the images and the sounds of BART trains. It’s such a distinct Bay Area touch. And, of course, it was a great narrative device. It kept the audience focused on the direction of the story.

The acting was very good. Michael B. Jordan seems to be getting a lot of plaudits, and he was good. Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend matched him. I like Octavia Spencer. I’ve been a fan since she was Serenity on Halfway Home, a short-lived and probably-forgotten show on Comedy Central. That kind of acting is about the polar opposite of this. I hope she gets a chance to do more interesting movies because I think she has a lot more range than your average moviegoer who only knows her from The Help would guess.

So I don’t have any big thesis or whatever. I liked Fruitvale Station a lot. A lot more than I thought I would. I’d recommend it. Go see it.

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