Sundance London First Looks: Fruitvale Station

Oscar (Michael B Jordan) has high hopes for 2009.

Oscar (Michael B Jordan) has high hopes for 2009.


Title:                         Fruitvale Station

Certificate:              15

Director:                  Ryan Coogler

Major players:         Michael B Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz

Out of five?             4


Do any of us follow through on our News Year’s resolutions?  Probably not.  They’re notoriously short-lived, so the central character of Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station decides to get ahead of the game and starts acting on his resolutions on New Year’s Eve 2008, rather than waiting until the following day.

Oscar Grant III (Michael B Jordan) feels there’s something in the air on New Year’s Eve and decides to act on it, which means being a better son to his mother whose birthday happens to be that very day, a better partner to his girlfriend, a better father to his little girl and just a better guy all round.  And, although the day starts well, events conspire against him.  By the time he gets on the train home from the New Year celebrations, his life is on a rapid downward slide.

Coogler’s debut feature arrived at Sundance this weekend with a reputation to live up to.  With prizes from last year’s Cannes and Sundance Utah (both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award), as well as this year’s Independent Spirit Awards, the expectations were high, even if it had taken over a year for it to get from Utah to London.  Worth the wait?  I’ll say!

Based on real events at Fruitvale BART Station in San Francisco’s Bay Area, the film traces the last day in the life of Oscar Grant before his shooting on New Year’s Day.  The film opens with blurred footage from a mobile phone.  Four young men are sat on the ground and several uniformed officers are in front of them, but it’s difficult to hear what’s being said or see what’s happening.  But the one thing that isn’t blurred or muffled is the sound of a single shot.  We discover at the end of the film that the same footage – and that taken by several other people on the same train – was crucial in prosecuting the BART cop who was accused of the shooting.

And it’s typical of a film that is full of mirror images and echoes and frequently comes full circle.  The inference from Coogler’s direction is that he subscribes to the theory of everything being connected.  During the day, while shopping for food for his mother’s birthday meal, Oscar meets a lady customer who doesn’t know how to cook fish.  He helps by calling his grandmother so she can give the customer some advice.  It’s that same customer who spots him on the train that night, calls out to him by name so that he’s spotted by a former fellow prison inmate who attacks him – and it’s the same customer again who shoots the mobile phone footage from the start of the film.

There are many more examples of this.  Yet, at the same time, Oscar lives in a world where events seem to be following one path and then suddenly, violently even, veer off in a different direction.  When Oscar is visited in jail by his mother (the excellent Octavia Spencer), they’re having a proper mother/son conversation when, seemingly out of nowhere, an aggressive inmate intervenes, hurling abuse at both of them.  Oscar’s clearly been in a recent fight: it was probably with the same man and it’s the same person who starts the fight on the train on New Year’s Day.

He’s painted in a positive light – shopping for his mum’s birthday, trying to save a dying dog, being a good dad to his young daughter – but he’s clearly no saint.  Apart from having been in jail, he’s cheated on his partner, lost his job for bad timekeeping (and, despite his efforts, doesn’t get it back) and has been drug dealing.  And, despite being a decent guy at heart, his biggest problem is a fiery temper that never fails to get him into trouble.

Although the final scenes at Fruitvale Station put the mobile phone footage into focus, the one thing we don’t see is exactly how Oscar comes to be shot.  We hear the sound of the gun, but that’s all: the BART cop obviously knows what he’s done but he doesn’t understand how it’s happened.  Neither do we and, judging from the captions at the end of the film, Oscar’s family didn’t either.

The film ends with a stunningly moving sequence.  Oscar’s partner, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) have returned home after his death.  They’re taking a shower together when Tatiana asks her mum when daddy’s coming back.  The screen goes blank and there’s total silence.  It’s how the future looks for both of them.


Fruitvale Station was screened at Sundance London on Saturday, 26 and Sunday, 27 April.  It is released around the UK on Friday, 6 June.




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