FRUITVALE STATION is based on one of those horrific, real-life stories of when a police officer makes a heinous, unjustifiable decision.

The film opens with amateur footage shot on a cell phone of the actual frantic, fatal moments in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009 recreated in Frutivale Station’s harrowing climax. The recreation begins a little over twenty-four hours before, with Oscar (Michael B. Jordan), a twenty-two year old small-time dope dealer and ex-con, arguing with Sopina (Melanie Diaz), his girlfriend and the mother of his four year-old child, Tatiana (the adorable Ariana Neal) about Oscar recently cheating on her. The movie then follows Oscar throughout the rest of his New Year’s Eve – which also happens to be his mother’s birthday – as he tries to follow through on his resolution to give up dealing dope and get his job back at the supermarket, which he was recently fired from for constantly being late. However, it’s New Year’s Eve and Sopina wants to go out to San Francisco to party. Though Oscar’s mother (the wonderful Octavia Spencer) begs him to take the train to avoid driving drunk, it turns out to be the wrong decision when Oscar is confronted by someone from his past and is later detained by the police in a frightening, chaotic scene.

The final thirty minutes of Fruitvale Station are alternately scary and heartbreaking, but the preceding fifty minutes does just about everything it can to make sure the audience sees Oscar as a sympathetic character. For example, the film illustrates that:
– Oscar is nice to strangers, as shown by him helping a pretty young girl he meets in the supermarket learn how to fry fish by calling his darling grandma.
– Oscar is kind to animals, as evidenced by the care he shows to a stray dog.
– Oscar is caring father, as evidenced by him constantly playing with his daughter.
– Oscar is a nice guy, as evidenced by the perpetual smile on his face.
– Oscar is committed to his family, as evidenced by his demeanor at his mother’s birthday dinner.
– Oscar is committed to turning his life around, as evidenced by his very first words in the film and his actions throughout the film. He also drinks nothing more than a swig out of a bottle on New Year’s Eve.

This includes scenes and situations that only the real-life Oscar would have been witness to, and thus their authenticity is questionable. The real-life Oscar may have been all of these things and more, but first time feature writer/director Ryan Cooglar risks making “movie Oscar” sympathetic to the point that it is over the top. Movie Oscar is an overwhelmingly charming individual, and though he has some moments of aggression and cowardice, there is little to dislike about him. Had movie Oscar lived the film shows no doubt that he would’ve become a model citizen on the straight and narrow, though it’s impossible to know how Oscar’s life would have gone. Of course, it’s still impossible not to feel sympathy for his character during the film’s climax.

Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station

Though those parts of the film might seem manipulative, there are parts that are chillingly authentic. Octavia Spencer’s performance as Oscar’s mother brings the film to another level. The interaction between her and Michael B. Jordan shows that Jordan has a bright future. Melanie Diaz also demonstrates her character’s pain effectively (but apropos of nothing, Sophina has the biggest hoop earrings I have ever seen in my life). Since the case revolved around cell phone footage, it’s also really clever that the importance of cell phones in our lives these days is demonstrated by superimposing Oscar’s text messaging on the screen. Lastly, Cooglar is wise to give the police officers some sympathy by making the most aggressive, scariest one (Kevin Durand) later the most calming.

As a whole, the film is a powerful look at the last hours in the life of a young man trying to transcend his environment. However, Cooglar would have served the true story better by not being so obviously cinematically manipulative with the material (the horrific circumstances alone make Oscar sympathetic). As his first film this is forgivable, but it’s a lesson he will need to learn to grow as a director.

Fim Review Rating 3 out of  5 : See it … It’s Good

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