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.

With everything in the film but the climactic assault on the eponymous station platform shot in bright, even, comfortingly televisual primaries by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, “Fruitvale Station” has no surprises up its laundered sleeve – its brutal denouement is also its beginning, its very reason for being. Faced with that dramatic restriction, Coogler instead preys on our short-term consciousness by cultivating a sunny, honeyed tone for the bulk of his film’s necessarily brief running time, painting a protagonist so charmed – and charming – that we’re reluctant to believe he could also be so ill-fated. It’s as relentlessly feel-good a feel-bad movie as any in recent memory, but in directing those feelings to the victim rather than the crime, “Fruitvale Station” winds up telling a smaller, easier story than it could do.

Rightly or wrongly, it’s not the kind of story you’d instinctively fashion as a star vehicle, though it’s on that level that the film most unreservedly scores. Michael B. Jordan, who already announced himself as one to watch with his turn a teenage drug pusher in “The Wire,” has easily enough loose-limbed, bright-eyed charisma to bear the weight of the camera’s devoted gaze as it follows him through one scene after another constructed to demonstrate Grant’s unimpeachable niceness as he goes about his day. (On the evidence of this week's releases alone, he may be a more natural movie star than his "Wire" co-star Idris Elba.)

Practically Jimmy Stewart in a beanie, though with more laddish, no-sweat sex appeal than that image might suggest, Jordan plays Grant as a figure whose individual magnetism is accented by his fierce sense of community, whether he’s strutting the streets while out on the lash or tenderly scaling himself to the doll’s-house world of his doting young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.