True- story films, be they biopics or historical dramas have the difficult task of balancing fact and drama. On one end you have films akin to the The Social Network which favors the later. For the former, there’s United 93 which presents itself, particularly the actions on the plane at face value. Both of these examples are excellent films, partially because they commit to primarily one side of the spectrum. The more traditional entries of the genre – particularly the long stretch of biopics in the early 2000s – struggle with finding this balance. First-time writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is one of the best out of that traditional group. There’s room for improvement as it occasionally falls into the same trappings of the genre but the performances elevate the film to the sobering experience many strive for, but few achieve.
The most noticeable problems are when the drama interferes with real life. There are plenty of moments of foreshadowing that remove the reality. Two that stand out are a scene in which Tatyana tells Oscar she’s scared of the fireworks because they sound like guns and she’s worried about him getting shot, the other is where Ms. Grant encourages her son take the train into the city. The latter likely happened given the involvement of the Grant family in the film’s production but had that not been publicized at the film’s release, the scene feels like Coogler is using hindsight to remind us where this is going – though the excellent choice to open with the real-life video footage is impossible to forget , even if the audience has already seen it. The scene with his daughter is another story as it feels and in all likelyhood is made for the film.
Michael B. Jordan rises above these genre trappings though as he never loses the real life qualities that make the film strong. Very few actors could take a role that’s this complex and hit every note with as much skill as the last. Throughout his last day, he goes from charming, to angry, to compassionate and vulnerable. Even in the film’s lone flashback during a visit with his mom while he serves time in prison. His hardened demeanor jumps to desperation as he’s pulled away from his mother. It’s rewarding to see Jordan has evolved the talents that made him so memorable in both “The Wire,” and “Friday Night Lights,” while making this performance stand on its own.
It would be impossible for any actor to come out from Jordan’s performance so it’s forgivable that no one rises above it here. While Spencer struggles through the majority of the movie, although she isn’t given much to do. The film’s final fifteen minutes are a reminder of why she has an Oscar on her resume as she becomes the central character.
Credit has to be given to Coogler for the way the police are portrayed in the films climax. At the start of the sequence, it looks like we’re getting a stereotypical villan played by Kevin Durand. While there’s no attempt to justify his actions he clearly Grant’s murder crosses even his line. There’s even a shot of the guilty cop – a different one – during the sequence who’s clearly overwhelmed by what he had just done. In just a matter of minutes, Coogler creates a well-rounded recreation of the incident without justifying any of it.
That commitment to fully formed characters and moments – even the smallest – is what makes Fruitvale Station a successful film. Jordan’s performance makes it stick with you long after leaving the theater.