This year's annual compromise candidate between Sundance and Cannes's otherwise divergent definitions of a festival film, "Fruitvale Station" is a clean-scrubbed tragedy that aims for a commendable reversal: taking a real-life human subject best known for the way he died, Ryan Coogler's debut feature instead builds its drama around the way he lived.
At least, it purports to do so. In Coogler's angry but unremittingly adoring portrait, how close you feel to Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Bay Area proletarian whose life was cut unaccountably short by a brute transit officer on New Year's Day in 2009, may depend on how much truth you see in its tidily condensed life-in-a-day structure. And that, unlike the incontestable video-phone footage of Grant's death that Coogler unspools as early as the prologue, is strictly in the eye of the beholder. It is one thing to present us with an atrocity that we know, and possibly even remember, happened. It is another to make us believe it.