VOD film review: Fruitvale Station
James R | On 09, Oct 2014
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer
The day starts with seafood. That’s what a girl at the supermarket wants to cook for her boyfriend. Oscar (Jordan), who’s there trying to persuade his boss to give him his job back, eyes her up and decides to help. He calls his gran and passes the phone over for her to dispense advice.
What starts out as a chat-up routine becomes something far sweeter – and lays the groundwork for a life-changing New Year’s Eve. Oscar, it becomes apparent, is trying to go straight following time in prison. He takes his girlfriend, Sophina (Diaz), to work. He picks his daughter, T (Ariana Neal), up from nursery. And he buys crabs for his mum’s (Octavia Spencer) birthday dinner: a gumbo that the family cooks together.
Events unfold in a surprisingly understated way. Aside from jarring book-ends of archive footage, director Ryan Coogler deploys handheld cameras for intimacy, filling up the frame with Oakland sunshine, while the soundtrack stems from Oscar’s surroundings.
The cast feel equally natural; Ariana Neal is adorable as Tatiana, mothered convincingly by the tolerating Melonie Diaz. Michael B. Jordan, though, is where Fruitvale Station finds its real strength. He excels in the lead, smiling his way through a string of events that repeatedly show us the good side of a bad kid. Without his sincerity and engaging presence, Ryan Coogler’s script could seem shallow or manipulative. One scene where Oscar symbolically helps a dog is rather on the nose, but Jordan underplays it, adding to the film’s blend of easygoing normality and hard-hitting reality.
Diaz and Spencer bring more depth through their reactions. A discussion between Oscar and his mum about whether to take the car or train is both unimportant yet highly significant – a trivial display of concern at a kitchen sink. Her and Sophina’s impatience and disappointment, meanwhile, hint at his past and present failures. Together, they undermine his shots at redemption; a cycle that makes Fruitvale Station’s sad second half one of the most moving films since Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur.
Throughout, Oscar reassures his boss and his mum he has reformed and plays the calming role in his group of boisterous friends when they ride public transport, but violence keeps flashing briefly to the surface. That switch from heartwarming to hostile is where Fruitvale Station succeeds more than, say, a documentary could: while scripted, the dramatised version of a real person’s life allows for that balance to shift delicately on screen. A later encounter with the supermarket girl from earlier feels coincidental but also crucial, a friendly greeting that turns into an endangering alert for the ex-con. Fruitvale Station’s fish stew is boiled gently. When the claws come out, you feel them crack.