A pervasive sense of dread fills Fruitvale Station.
Based on real events, the film (* * * * out of four; rated R; opens Friday in select cities) begins with a chaotic and powerful opening that is instantly riveting. In the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, police, responding to reports of a fight on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train, detain four young African-American men at an Oakland station. A policeman fires a shot.
Twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant is fatally shot in the back as he lies on the ground handcuffed and unarmed. Captured on several cellphones, the shooting is posted on countless websites, sparking widespread protests. Some label it an execution. Shown here in real time, the shooting footage is like a mushroom cloud hovering over the film.
After the unsettling opener, first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler wisely flashes back to the day before the shooting, immersing viewers in Grant's humanity by chronicling the 24 hours leading up to his death.
As the film plays out, the audience is likely to be overwhelmed by anger and the inability to stop what is coming. Opportunities for the story to take a different turn and avoid tragedy loom, leaving a haunting impression.
Though we are aware of the outcome, we can't help but hope against hope, which is testament to writer-director Coogler's multifaceted portrait of Grant.
It would have been easy to turn Grant into a sacrificial lamb, glossing over his transgressions. Yet Coogler doesn't sanctify the Bay Area man, who had served time for a drug conviction and cheated on his girlfriend, who is the mother of his beloved young daughter.
Michael B. Jordan is superbly multi-dimensional as Grant, who dotes on 4-year-old Tatiana (Ariana Neal) and is determined to be a better partner to Sophina (Melonie Diaz). He sells marijuana, but is trying to clean up his act. He adores his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), but a flashback shows he wasn't always kind to her.
Jordan communicates the despair and yearning that underlie Grant's streetwise charm. We feel his sadness at the casual cruelty he witnesses toward a stray dog. We smile as he joyously plays with his daughter and basks in the warmth of his family as they celebrate his mother's birthday.
Jordan, who brings to mind a young Denzel Washington, nimbly taps into Grant's inherent decency, as well as his weaknesses. He's generous and warm, but also easily frustrated and wired. When he's shot, after ringing in the New Year in San Francisco, there's a real sense of lost potential.
Coogler sought to capture the truths he uncovered about Grant, through public records and interviews. He shot the film in the Bay Area neighborhood and locations that Grant frequented.
At the end, we learn that the officer who shot Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served only 11 months. We see the face of Grant's real daughter at a memorial and are reminded that the living were also victimized.
This year's big winner at the Sundance Film Festival, Fruitvale Station is a profoundly compelling, gut-wrenching and important film. It's particularly timely in the wake of the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of fatally shooting the unarmed Trayvon Martin. Most importantly, it reveals a face, heart and soul behind the heartbreaking headlines.
Claudia Puig, USA TODAY