There are now a few stories surrounding Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” which screened in Cannes yesterday. There’s the “Fruitvale Station” that as a passion-project debut feature from an untested filmmaker, was plucked from obscurity, championed notably by Forest Whitaker, and put into production. There’s the “Fruitvale Station” that went from a standing start to become the runaway success story of Sundance, netting two of the biggest awards in the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize. There’s the “Fruitvale Station” that launched a distribution bidding war, and catapulted its director and star to the top of everyone’s “ones to watch” list. And there’s the Fruitvale Station which is a stop on a BART line at which in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year old father of one, Oscar Grant was shot by a transit cop, dying later from his wound. There is the film, there is the story it tells, and there is what actually happened.
Starting with blurry cameraphone imagery of the shooting incident, (footage like this would prove crucial in the case subsequently brought against the officer responsible) Coogler’s film then spins back in time by 24 hours, to tell the story of Grant’s last day. It’s in many ways an inspired conceit, meaning that as the day unfolds, and we get closer and closer to zero hour, the inevitability of Grant’s senseless death looms over everything he does and says: a dark cloud that we can see but he cannot. Along with the faultless performances, especially from “Chronicle” and “Friday Night Lights” star Michael B Jordan, the device gives the film a taut edge, leading up to the brilliantly executed recreation of the BART station scene, which is a fine example of tension-building, and manages to capture with dreadful relatability the chaos of those panicky moments, and the irrevocability of what occurs. But the simplicity and and elegance of this tight countdown of growing dread is unfortunately undercut by some questionable narrative decisions that tug at the leash of the film’s factual basis.
Scenes that are already weighted with portentousness because of what we know will happen occasionally dip over into heavy-handedness when something particularly poignant or pointed occurs, leading to a sense of their contrivance — always a thorny issue in a “based on a true story.” From his adorable daughter’s last words to him before he leaves on his night out being “Don’t go Daddy, I’m scared. I hear guns” to the very woman he helps out at a supermarket fish counter (just because he’s a decent guy) ending up not just on his train, but in the same carriage where the fateful scuffle breaks out, there are more than a handful of times when we feel we’re being pointed in a certain direction rather too forcefully. Some of these things no doubt did happen, and many are based on real evidence, like text messages and interviews, but nonetheless we feel the hand of manipulation in how they are told. Which is not to say a true story can’t or shouldn’t be embellished, but the layering-on of these moments and coincidences, and the telescoping of them all into such a brief period just feels too constructed, and so ironically does precisely the opposite to what it’s designed to — it slightly softens the true force of the tragedy by reminding us that there is fiction at work here too.
Occasionally manipulative script aside, there’s plenty to admire. The heart of the film is the sympathetic characterization by Jordan, who makes Oscar a decent, sincere character, trying to do the right thing having gotten so much wrong in the past (the film’s only real flashback is to him in prison being given the tough love treatment by his mother). But the darker notes, or even the more neutral, non heart-tugging ones, come few and far between, and we can’t help but think that a few more of those could have given a greater sense of verisimilitude, without compromising the sense of a life of love and opportunity denied. Instead Oscar is a lovable and beloved guy who ends nearly every conversation — with his sister, his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), his daughter, his mother (Octavia Spencer) — with a quick but heartfelt “I love you.”
It feels like Coogler is trying not just to tell the story of Grant’s last day, but to pay tribute to his whole life, condensed and represented in miniature by this 24 hours, the better for us to feel moved by the injustice of how cruelly curtailed a life it was. This is borne out by the film’s relative lack of interest in anything that happens after Grant dies — the compelling story of the cell phone footage, the trial, the controversial verdict, and the unrest and memorialization that followed is told mostly through curt, pre-credit-roll titles.Yet the film also tries hard for a verite style, as opposed to something more allegorical, and so we have to conclude that we’re supposed to accept its less believable moments at face value. In fact, “Fruitvale Station” opens up several prickly questions about the nature of the “true story” genre — where does “true” end and “based on” begin? At what point does the narrative become so overloaded with details (that are necessary for the story the author wants to tell but didn’t happen quite like that, or on that day, or at all) that the elastic bond that attaches the story to its truthful roots reaches its limit?
“Fruitvale Station,” is impressive for a debut, and displays the unimpeachable intent to involve us all in the human story behind a headline. And it certainly displays great promise from its director and accomplished performances from its cast. But it does feel like a first film, in that it lacks the assurance and experience to trust the audience to find its way to the emotional heart of the story without some unsubtle signposting along the way. [B]