Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fruitvale Station

“Fruitvale Station” begins with cellphone video footage of the notorious homicide of young ex-con Oscar Grant on a BART platform on New Year’s Day 2009 by a typical police officer – that is to say, an idiot, coward and thug – who couldn’t figure out how to stop a fistfight that was already over without killing somebody. (The pig got off with involuntary manslaughter after claiming – risibly – that he mistook his gun for his taser.) It ends about 80 minutes later with a powerful reenactment of the same incident. The problem is everything in between: overly scripted, ham-fisted, and borderline hagiographic in its portrayal of Grant. As happens anytime a filmmaker tells you over and over how you’re supposed to feel, you resist.

26-year-old first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler has made the strange and unfortunate choice to tell Grant’s story by fictionalizing the day (New Year’s Eve day) leading up to his death. Strange because, with due respect, there’s nothing cinematic about watching Oscar drive around town or most of the rest of the quotidian activities that fill the first hour. Unfortunate because the compactness constraint forces Coogler to fill the day with so many manufactured moments that coincidence and credulity strain to the breaking point.

First, Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) goes to the market where he’d worked the seafood counter with his brother until getting fired for habitual lateness, strikes up a conversation with Katie, a pretty white woman whose boyfriend happens to love fried fish, and puts Katie on the phone with his grandmother, who proceeds to instruct her what fish to buy and how to fry them. Then he calls his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), who asks him whether he’s holding his phone while driving, upon which Oscar literally pulls his car to the side of the road. Later, after a prison flashback in which Wanda visits Oscar for what she swears is the last time (and in which he gets into a fight in the visiting room with a vato who asks whether his mom’s a snitch too), Oscar decides to turn over a new leaf and dumps an entire Ziploc bag of weed into the Pacific. This is after calling a regular buyer to sell him its contents. Then the buyer – who wouldn’t have looked out of place at Alcatraz – shows up and gets the bad news, and doesn’t much mind (in fact, he shares a toke with Oscar in the car). If you buy any of this, I’ve got a first-rate bridge to sell you.

Over the course of the day, Oscar and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) fight and make up about half a dozen times. When they and a large group of friends take the train into the city to see the fireworks, the girls have to stop to pee. Oscar offers a business owner ten bucks to open his restroom to the girls. The owner reluctantly agrees, then tells Oscar to keep the money. Then a pregnant woman happens by, also needing the john. The owner lets her in too, and in the couple minutes while they’re waiting, Oscar and her husband have a meaningful heart-to-heart about marriage, after which the man (a self-made software entrepreneur) tells Oscar to call him if there’s ever anything he can do for him. This is all very stilted and script-y, and that’s before they get back on the train. There, Oscar leads the entire car in a midnight countdown. Everybody in the car – everybody – breaks into dance together. And who’s in the car? Both Katie, the girl from the market, AND an ex-con from the same rival gang as the guy Oscar fought in the prison scene. It’s laughable.

The performances are the best thing about “Fruitvale Station.” Jordan delivers a solid and appealing turn as Oscar, while Spencer (whose supporting-actress Oscar as the shitpie-baking Minny in 2011’s hateful “The Help” was but another lowlight in the Academy’s annals) gets to show she can actually act, quietly fashioning Wanda into a woman of fortitude and resoluteness. Diaz also has some nice moments as the put-upon Sophina, occasionally calling to mind a young Rosie Perez. And Ariana Neal, as their daughter Tatiana, lights up the screen anytime she appears; she’s absolutely adorable.

But by attempting to elevate Oscar into a hero, Coogler ends up reducing him and the movie. He gives us only glimpses of Oscar’s dark side – flashes of fury – but to borrow a line from Estelle Getty on “The Golden Girls,” “You think he went to Attica for the volleyball program?” Oscar Grant didn’t serve time at San Quentin because he had a slightly short fuse. Coogler paints in black and white (so to speak), when we all know the interesting stuff is in the gray.
One final note: After Leo DiCaprio's endless use of "old sport" in this year's "The Great Gatsby," I never imagined I'd find another character's speech affectation as exasperating - until Oscar uses "brah," "bruh," and the unspeakably insufferable "breh" about three hundred times in this movie. What happened to the real Oscar Grant is inexcusable; as for the movie's version, you'd have been ready to duct-tape his mouth shut by January 2 in any case.

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