In a summer filled with explosions and absurd car chases, sometimes you need a movie focused on substance instead of superheroes.
If you're not tapped into the film festival circuit, you likely haven't heard about "Fruitvale Station," the small indie drama that premiered to rave reviews and a standing ovation at Sundance this past January. That's nothing to be ashamed of -- it's difficult to discover new independent work when art house theaters are closing in droves and ads for big-budget movies are being splashed on every TV screen and billboard.
Granted, "Fruitvale Station" isn't exactly flying under the radar. After all, it's being distributed by The Weinstein Company (a studio known for turning small projects into big, award-winning machines come Oscar season) and is based on a true-life incident, one that received a great deal of national media attention when it happened in 2009.
Nevertheless, the film, which opens in seven theaters this Friday before it's released nationwide on July 26, still deserves early recognition from casual moviegoers who have yet to hear about it.
"Fruitvale Station" revolves around Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American, and an incident involving a transit police officer. It happened just after midnight on New Year's Day, when Grant and his friends took the train back to Fruitvale Station after celebrating in San Francisco. However, before they arrived at Fruitvale, there was an altercation onboard. Police officers were soon called in and eventually detained Grant and his friends out on the train platform. There, an argument ensued between Grant and one of the officers, which ended with the officer shooting Grant in the back (Grant was unarmed).
Since the train was sitting in the station during the shooting, the entire incident was recorded on smartphones by several onlookers and then uploaded to the web. When news outlets around the country began broadcasting the clips, the controversy ballooned from local tragedy to national rallying point, with everyone from civil rights leaders to ordinary citizens making charges of racial profiling and calling for the officer's head. (You can read more about the case here.)
While the film doesn't delve into the riotous aftermath of the shooting, it does focus on the details -- specifically, what Oscar was up to in the 24 hours leading up to the incident. This is where "Fruitvale Station" finds its anchor in Michael B. Jordan, who puts in a potential breakout performance as Grant.
Best known for his portrayal as Wallace in the first season of HBO's "The Wire" (he also starred in the films "Chronicle" and "Red Tails," along with the TV series "Friday Night Lights"), Jordan brings Oscar to life with the perfect amount of indecision and stress a 22-year-old on his last leg would be feeling -- Oscar's out of a job, broke, and just looking to help his family. Supporting Jordan in two equally outstanding performances are Melonie Diaz, as Oscar's girlfriend, Sophina, and Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer, as Oscar's no-nonsense-but-caring mother, Wanda.
As we follow Oscar, we get a glimpse of the man who lived the same way many of us do -- doing chores, taking his daughter to school, and trying to find work. It sounds mundane, watching a twentysomething go through his daily routine, but there's a sweet sadness to it; though the story may end with a heartbreaking conclusion, you can't look away, hoping something or someone will help save Oscar before he and his family's lives are changed forever.
While the film stands on its own as an illustration of raw, human emotion, there's an obvious racial undertone that accompanies it. Not just the division between white cops and young black men, but the actual aftermath of Grant's shooting and how the community responds. However, the cast and director have reiterated that they hope this movie is seen as a human story, and not just a "black" one: "The story isn't a quote unquote 'black' story," Spencer told EW. "The message is very universal." Coogler echoed similar sentiments to Indiewire's Shadow and Act blog: "I hope that someone could watch ... who's not from the Bay Area, who's not black, and recognize some of those relationships and see themselves and be emotionally affected by the film."
They're right: it's hard not to be emotionally affected by what happens on screen during this film. This sentiment is no more evident than toward the end of the movie, when Oscar is on the train platform with his friends. Here, he begs the officer, "We just trying to get home." It's the plea of a young man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and it will hit you like a punch to the gut.
You have plenty of choices in the theaters over the next two months, and while a drama like "Fruitvale" isn't necessarily considered traditional summer fare, you should strongly consider it. It's a movie that has more bite than a kaiju and packs a bigger emotional punch than the Man of Steel.
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