An emotionally gripping docudrama, Fruitvale Station is one of 2013’s best films.
Writer/Director Ryan Coogler’s debut feature is anchored by sound design. Coogler and his audio department make several clever choices, the most obvious of which is employing silence to heighten tension in the picture’s most important moments. But silence is not the sound’s best quality; the best is the way Oakland’s BART trains often serve as ambient noise.
Largely owing to the audio, Fruitvale Station sets and maintains a foreboding tone.
Coogler’s other directorial and authorial decisions do the same. Consider the way he consistently reminds us of Oscar’s (Michael B. Jordan) temper and impulsiveness; the fact that Oscar still gives drugs to a buyer after he resolves to go straight; or the camera that lingers on Oscar’s loved ones as they struggle with his flaws. All of Fruitvale Station’s elements combine to ensure we remember the movie’s inevitable resolution, even as we’re laughing at the most light-hearted moments.
In other words, Ryan Coogler’s debut feature is an impressive artistic achievement. He is a filmmaker to watch.
He is also a terrific screenwriter. Coogler develops his principle characters well, and makes secondary players feel genuine.
Even better, he refuses to villainize or herofy. On one hand, Officer Caruso (a scene-stealingly good Kevin Durand) initially seems a racist monster but shifts to compassionate life saver the moment events go horribly wrong. Even Officer Ingram (Chad Michael Murray) seems befuddled and racked with guilt immediately after his terrible mistake.
On the other hand, Oscar is tender, sweet, and charismatic, but he is also self-destructive, quick to anger, and violent. He wants to improve his life, but there is no guarantee that he will succeed.
All of which is to say Coogler’s script refuses to give into archetype or cliche.
Fruitvale Station’s actors match their director’s skill. Michael B. Jordan is dynamic as Oscar, delivering one of many award-worthy lead performances in 2013. His last dialogue is understated and heart-wrenching.
Octavia Spencer plays Oscar’s mother, Wanda, with such steady certainty that she deserves her second Academy Award.
Melonie Diaz (Sophina) is heart-breakingly good, as well, earning award recognition whether or not she receives it.
In fact, Fruitvale Station’s ensemble rivals American Hustle’s in performance brilliance.
The movie’s flaws are minor. It invents a handful of scenes (Oscar caring for a wounded dog amongst them) and omits some of the uncertainty in Officer Ingram’s behavior.
Additionally, about midway through, it choppily cuts to a flashback of Oscar’s time in prison.
Yet, neither of these minor missteps limit the film’s thematic or narrative power. This movie highlights the racially-charged injustice that plagues the US legal system, and it leaves us longing for change.