Moments after New Years Day 2009, 22-year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant was shot by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in an altercation that didn't call for it. The officer, whose actions were captured on numerous cell phone videos, claimed he mistook his gun for his taser and eventually went to jail — but the damage was done. Grant, the father of a four-year-old attempting to get his life together, died the next morning. His death led to protests in the area and national discussion, but the particulars of the life lost in the scuffle received less scrutiny.
Now that has changed with "Fruitvale," an incredibly moving and confident first feature written and directed by Ryan Coogler. Opening with the shaky-cam footage of the incident in question, Coogler's script then rewinds 12 hours to explore the final day of Grant's life. Played by up-and-comer Michael B. Jordan ("Chronicle") with enormous restraint and pathos to spare, Grant develops into a deeply sympathetic young man over the course of the movie, which makes the imminent climax particularly tough to watch. Coogler's camera captures the details unavailable to the recording devices that captured Grant's death — namely, the whole story.
Perpetually stoned and often squabbling with his longtime girlfriend (a sassy Melanie Diaz), Grant hides from her the fact that he has lost his job at the supermarket, then wastes several hours wandering around town. Although he makes no grand claims to New Year resolutions, it's clear from Coogler's perceptive screenplay that Grant wants to get his act together. Whether calling his grandmother or randomly attempting to assist an injured dog in the middle of the street, seemingly everything Grant does reflects his desire to be a better person, but he lacks any specific means of achieving that goal aside from his aimless perseverance. "I can't lose," he says when speaking of his future job prospects, but nothing seems to be playing out in his favor.
While well-grounded by its lead performances, "Fruitvale" suffers from the nature of its premise: The arbitrary quality of Grant's day leads to a cluttered middle section that essentially repeats many of the struggles of the character already established early on. Coogler's decisions to superimpose text messages on the screen and sometimes rely on heavy-handed monologues distract from the overall fluidity of the movie.
But "Fruitvale" is largely sustained by Jordan's career-making performance and the way Coogler uses it to analyze his subject: While in death, Grant was martyred for causes ranging from police brutality to race, his blackness is treated as beside the point. Instead, Grant comes across as an everyman slacker with the same problems that plague any number of lower-class young adults. It's a fascinating investigation into the contrast between media perception and intimate truths.
That's enough to keep "Fruitvale" fairly engaging for most of its running time, but the events that take place shortly after midnight deliver on the grueling experience promised in the movie's opening moments. In a stunning reenactment unfolding in real time, a charming New Year's party shared by train riders when the vehicle stalls at midnight flows naturally into tragedy with a gripping pace. The incredible cavalcade of events that lead to the shooting might seem forced were they not rooted in the footage from the outset, but that specific incident holds less power than the scenes following it. When the full impact of Grant's death comes to the fore for the people closest to him, "Fruitvale" generates tears to express the same rage found in the protests following the tragedy. It makes the cause personal.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Enthusiastically received at Sundance, "Fruitvale" has sparked a bidding war for its stature as an effective tearjerker, but its downbeat premise makes it a tough commercial gamble. In the right hands, however, it could generate further acclaim in theatrical release and even turn into an awards contender.