Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Fruitvale Station (Movie Review)

By Freda Cooper 27.04.2014

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! - Oscar nominations 2014

Fruitvale Station (UK Rating: 15)

For Oscar Grant III, New Year's Eve 2008 was going to be the day that changed everything. Instead of doing the conventional thing and starting on his New Year resolutions the following day, he started a day early. There was plenty to do - be a better son to his mother, a better partner to his girlfriend, a better dad to his little girl and give up drug dealing that had put him in prison. What he couldn't have foreseen was that this would also be 24 hours that completely changed the lives of those around him for ever.
Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Fruitvale Station (Movie Review)

Based on real events in the Bay Area of San Francisco over the New Year celebrations for 2009, Ryan Googler's Fruitvale Station traces the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant (a powerful Michael B Jordan), including all the people bound up in that last day - friends, family, enemies and strangers. It all culminates in the events at Fruitvale BART Station, when Oscar is involved in a fight on a train, detained by BART officers and suddenly shot. There's an impression of those events right at the start of the film with blurred mobile phone footage shot by one of the other passengers, but the action are blurred and the voices muffled. Only one thing is clear: the sound of the shot. When the incident is shown in more clarity later in the film, it's still unclear how the gun came to be fired. Only that shot rings out loud and clear.

This is a film full of mirror images and echoes, almost as if Coogler was setting out to prove the theory that everything is connected. Take, for example, when Oscar shops for food for his mother's birthday dinner. He goes to the supermarket where he used to work - he's lost his job because he couldn't turn up on time - and gets into a conversation with a lady customer who doesn't know how to cook fish. To help her out, he calls his grandmother and asks her to give the customer some advice. It's thoughtful of him and the customer is delighted - so it's no surprise that she recognises him when she sees him on the train coming out of town after the New Year fireworks and calls out to him by name. That call draws the attention of another passenger, Oscar's arch enemy from prison who also happens to be on the train, and a fight breaks out. The mobile phone footage from the start of the film was shot by the same customer.

It's as if, try as he might to turn over a new leaf, Oscar is frustrated at every turn. His attempts to get his job back come to nothing and he gives up drug dealing but has no money to pay the rent. In his world, he's constantly thrown off course by sudden and unexpected events. In prison, he's enjoying a visit from his mother (the excellent Octavia Spencer) when their conversation is interrupted by a torrent of abuse from another inmate - the very same one he meets on that fateful train journey. While the audience is being shown the more positive sides of Oscar's character, the more difficult ones are also apparent - drug dealing, a hot temper, cheating on his partner and the lack of personal discipline that gets him the sack.

Director Googler gets great performances from his cast, especially Jordan and Spencer, and effectively mixes scripted scenes with improvisation. The family get-together for the mother's birthday is completely unscripted and has a genuine warmth and informality about it - almost as if it was being filmed on a mobile phone.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – Fruitvale Station (Movie Review)

Inevitably, Fruitvale Station has a tragic and all-too-predictable ending, but the final scenes of the film are stunning. In yet another echo of another earlier scene, we see Oscar's partner and little girl back at home sharing a shower. The daughter asks when her daddy is coming back. The audience and her mother know the answer. The screen goes blank and there's silence. There's nothing more to be said.

[score=8]An impressive debut from Ryan Googler, Fruitvale Station takes us behind the tragic news story of the time and the cast bring all the characters vividly to life. Along with the audience, they all take an emotional journey, and all have different outcomes.

Fruitvale Station was screened at Sundance London and is released around the UK on Friday, 6 June.

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