Ryan Coogler‘s directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, is the first truly great film I’ve seen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This is a story told with such honesty, heart and emotion it’s an exhaustive experience trying to make it to the end without breaking down and it’s all thanks to a spectacularly lean screenplay, tight direction and performances that will knock you over.
On New Year’s Day in 2009, Oscar Grant was shot in the back by arresting officers at Fruitvale Station as he was riding the BART home from a night out with friends in San Francisco. Fruitvale opens with actual footage from one of the cell phones that caught the incident in its entirety and sets a mood from the get go that you simply cannot shake. Based on a true story, Fruitvale Station recounts the 24 hours that led to that incident.
Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) plays Oscar, an ex-convict with a young daughter (Ariana Neal) and girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz). Coogler, who directs and wrote the screenplay, doesn’t attempt to paint his real-life characters as something they aren’t as we’re first introduced to Oscar, arguing with Sophina about the girl he was caught cheating on her with. He sweet talks her and attempts to make amends when their daughter knocks on the door, unable to sleep. Crawling in-between them, the symbol of their love is obvious and while Oscar is clearly a flawed human being, we respect the fact nothing is being hidden from us only to be cheaply revealed later in the story.
Jordan breathes life into Oscar, rough edges and all. He loves his daughter, was recently fired from his job for being late and was once a drug dealer and is within inches of going back to the life with rent just around the corner. Fruitvale is shaped around these details as Oscar prepares for his mother’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday, runs an errand for his sister and helps a young woman (Ahna O’Reilly) at the grocery store he was just fired from with her first ever fish fry by calling up his Grandma Bonnie (Marjorie Shears). All the while we know he still has to make things right with Sophina and the weed in his jeans isn’t going to sell itself.
For a film that’s only 85 minutes long that’s a lot of heft to get on the table and those are only the peripheral details, the heart of this story is in the relationships between Oscar, his little girl and Sophina. Between their group of friends and the laughter shared at his mother’s birthday party, before they head out to catch the metro into town. True love, happiness and respect between characters in films is one of the hardest things for actors to get across, but watching the group Coogler has assembled you’d think these people had been friends for a lifetime.
Obviously I was impressed by Jordan, who’s going to be a massive star and hopefully one that continues to remember to make films such as this once the Hollywood offers come rolling in. However, and while I know Octavia Spencer is going to get a lot of love for her performance late in this movie, and deservedly so, I hope no one forgets what Melonie Diaz does in this movie, one moment in-particular comes as she slaps her hands on her legs in anger, fear and sadness and you feel every bit of her pain. I can only hope Oscar talk swirls around this film and that everyone sees it and the neames Diaz and Jordan need to be rolling off those nomination lips.
If I had any issue with the film it would only be in a couple lines of dialogue as Sophina and Oscar drive their daughter over to her sister’s so they can head out of town. But the images of her bright eyes staring up at the night sky as the streetlights appear as fireworks on the window are too beautiful to fault a couple of obvious moments of exposition. Kudos to Rachel Morrison for her work in that respect, her camerawork here is fantastic.
This is a film that paints a picture filled with rage, fear and love in bright stripes, side-by-side and manages to go from one to the other in a heartbeat with tremendous effect thanks to a truly collaborative effort.
Typically a film like this is one I believe I could watch only once given the heart-breaking nature of it all, but what Coogler and his cast and crew have done is create a portrait of life, a celebration painted in all shades. Humanity is just as ugly as it is beautiful and this is a film that realizes had they glossed over the ugliness in Oscar’s life the true beauty wouldn’t have been able to shine through, and it shines bright.