"You're gay? What a coincidence... we're gay too!"
I'm always leery of films that come out of The Sundance Film Festival having won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, because for every gem like Winter's Bone or You Can Count On Me, there are countless films that ended up being maudlin dreck like Precious, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Girlfight or Happy Texas. I'm overjoyed to report that the Grand Jury got it right in 2013 when they awarded their top prize to Ryan Coogler's amazing new film Fruitvale Station. Based on a true story, the film is a undeniably powerful & moving film, unlikely to leave anyone who sees it unstirred.
The film takes place on December 31, 2008 & the very early morning hours of January 1, 2009, and tells the true story of Oakland, CA resident Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) a young man wrestling with a lot of demons, but also determined to change his life for the better. We meet Oscar in bed with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) & their young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and he's going through a normal day's routine, dropping them off at work & school respectively. That night they're going to be headed to his mother (Octavia Spencer)'s house to celebrate her birthday and then traveling into San Francisco for New Year's festivities.
Throughout his day, he is confronting a lot of issues that seem to be plaguing him. A flashback lets us know that he served jail time for drug possession, and that his mother, though she loved him dearly, was ready to turn her back on him if he didn't turn things around. We also meet an assorted cast of characters on the fringes of his life, some good friends and some potential enemies. When Oscar's mother suggests he take the train into the city that night rather than drive, little do any of them know that his past, present & future will all collide shortly after they ring in the new year.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler knows how to make the most out of little moments. The film seems so slim in comparison to so many other films, but every scene, every gesture, every little thing carries a ton of weight, and he truly knows how to make a film that's comprised of hundreds of these things. Since the film takes place in only one 24-hour period, there's not a ton of locations or settings, and the film makes the most out of every character interaction. The film's characters are all fully and wonderfully realized, and the relationships between them all drive the film and give it its emotional core. It's an economic and wonderful script, and Coogler's directorial choices are all solidly realized, including the recurring theme of projecting text messages on screen.
The one thing I admire most about the film though is that it does not seek to portray Oscar as some sort of saint. Oftentimes in films like this, the main character can take on this sort of glossed-over feel and everything seems to be shot through rose colored lenses, but they wisely portray him as a fully three dimensional person that doesn't always make good decisions, and lets his temper get the best of him. But they also show how much love he has for his friends and family, and especially his daughter. Make no mistake, his relationship with his daughter is the emotional core of this film, and it is portrayed in several amazingly beautiful exchanges between them.
This film is a true coming out party for young actor Michael B. Jordan. After playing lots of supporting roles on tv (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) and film (Chronicle, Red Tails), he shows here that he is an electric young actor that demands your attention. His performance here is not only the driving force behind the entire film, but it sizzles with an intensity not seen very often in actors his age. Compare his performance here to any of those from his Friday Night Lights co-stars like Taylor Kitsch or Zach Gilford, and you see that Mr. Jordan has talent to spare. This is a young man to watch, and I sincerely hope that he is on his way to an Oscar nomination for this work here.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Photos via ComingSoon]