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PARK CITY - Going into Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale" this afternoon, I was unaware of the unfortunate case of Oscar Grant. So my experience of the film is bound to differentiate from someone who was up on the story or, indeed, any number of audiences who are bound to catch up with the film after the festival, once the particulars are chewed on in the entertainment media a lot.
So, on those particulars, Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, was shot by a police officer at the Fruitvale BART station on his way back from New Year's festivities in the wee hours of January 1, 2009. The altercation was captured by numerous cell phones and led to strife and unrest regarding police brutality. It has been argued an accident and an execution, but what Coogler's film does so well, and when it is at its best, is when it fleshes out and defines the life lost, the father trying to put his life back together and the pain that came with his death.
Any fan of television's "The Wire" or "Friday Night Lights" is well aware of the promise of actor Michael B. Jordan. As Grant, the actor delivers a stellar, organic, moving, nuanced performance that surely had plenty to do with The Weinstein Company's $2 million bidding war-ending acquisition of the title this morning. He depicts a young man with his back against the wall but not so sure he should take some of the avenues available to him to make ends meet for him, his girlfriend and their young daughter.
As Grant's mother, Octavia Spencer is steel-willed and, ultimately, breaks the heart. In the film's final moments, which so brilliantly put the viewer in the position of someone losing a loved one as the desperate minutes tick by, she brings tears to your eyes. I was pretty much weeping, as were countless other individuals in the theater. And it was an earned reaction.
But while the film is incredibly moving, I feel it makes certain decisions that undercut that power and diminish the overall effect. Grant is treated with a messianic touch throughout. It's not to say that fault or frailty isn't apparent -- it absolutely is and with realistic measure -- but the sense that he, as a character, is the nobly besieged gives the film an overt point of view. That said, the film kind of has that idea on its mind, the familiar notion of not being able to right a life of wrongs with the deck stacked against you. Indeed, the film's final shot is an arresting depiction of this very concept, or rather, the choice of when to cut to black is. I gasped at the power of that moment.
And of course, I imagine Coogler has a distinct point of view on this, too, and that's fair enough. But then there's the dramatization of the police altercation. It lacks some of the nuance that has been reported. One moment in particular -- the officer's mistaking his gun for his taser and stating, "Stand back, I'm going to tase him" -- was left out and only dealt with via postscript where, when juxtaposed with the fact that the officer spent only 18 months in jail, ends up suggesting that justice wasn't served. And there's also the fact that multiple weapons were taken from passengers riding the BART on that line that night, leaving tensions surely high. The film isn't a documentary, but the curious removal of these details is unfortunate, in my opinion.
But the story of the film isn't really in those particulars at the end of the day. It's in Jordan's performance, which will light up his career from here. He was brilliant in "Friday Night Lights" and quite good, too, in last year's "Chronicle," but this will break him out in a big way. He's an exciting young talent with a bright future and "Fruitvale" will be remembered as the film that brought him into that spotlight. Do the Weinsteins have a mind toward the awards season with the pick-up? We'll see. I'll have more on potential awards prospect out of this year's fest in due time.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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