Film Review: “Fruitvale Station”

The story is pretty familiar to anyone who paid attention to the news four years ago, especially if you were in California at the time. On January 1, 2009, after a night of celebrating the new year in San Francisco, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station.

To its advantage, the new film Fruitvale Station, currently showing at Harper Theater, isn’t necessarily about that night at the station. Yes, the actual shooting is shown in all its cell-phone ugliness at the start and then reenacted later, but very little of the aftermath is depicted. None of the riots, marches, or trials are present. Save a short epilogue of actual footage of a memorial service at the station earlier this year, the film ends quietly on the morning after, with Grant’s girlfriend Sophina and four-year-old daughter Tatiana alone together.

Instead, the film is about Oscar Grant himself, played by Michael B. Jordan. As we follow him during the 24 hours before the incident, we see him prepare for his mother’s birthday dinner while struggling with a lost job and financial issues. We know he’s cheated on his girlfriend before, but he clearly cares a lot about her and their daughter. A flashback reveals he’s had trouble with the law, but that’s behind him now. He’s not perfect, but he’s trying.

Grant’s relationship with his family is really what carries the film the most. Between sneaking an extra fruit snack for Tatiana after Mom said no and the too-adorable-for-words race to the car after preschool, Jordan is at his best when paired with Tatiana actress Ariana Neal. Then, at the birthday dinner for Grant’s mother, familial warmth and safety is captured in its essence as the whole family jokes around and crowds in the kitchen for food.

However, sometimes the film goes too far out of its way to establish Grant’s undeniable humanity. A particular scene at the gas station, where Grant cradles a dying dog hit by a passing driver before his eyes, is overwrought with movie sentimentality, and it seems unlikely that such a scene ever actually happened. Similarly, when the woman that Grant helped in the grocery store returns later on the BART train, the coincidence is far too perfect to be true.

Director Ryan Coogler also seems to have difficulty calming his camera throughout the film. Almost entirely shot on handheld, the film constantly bounces around and shifts in and out of focus while shooting even the most mundane activities during the day. It’s largely a forgivable aspect – chalk it up to the director’s style – and even an appropriate one during the chaos at the BART station, but the frenetic camerawork seems entirely out of place at the hospital the morning after, when things have quieted and sorrow sets in.

Fruitvale Station’s greatest asset is its lack of political stance. It doesn’t argue one way or the other about gun control or race relations. It doesn’t victimize Oscar Grant, nor does it glorify him. Its singular and powerful aim is to present a portrait of Grant in actuality, with all of his flaws and merits intact – to put a simple personal story behind the impersonal media storm that surrounded the whole affair. Towards that, the film is a success.

For Harper Theater tickets and showtimes, visit harpertheater.com.