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In the history of the human race there is tragedy enough for oceans and oceans of grief. It is so overwhelming that those of us who aren’t poets or madmen can only take in so much at a time, else we collapse under the weight of our collective misery. For cinematic eons, the most poignant and affecting filmmakers have focused their attentions on singular small stories as stand-ins for this enormity, the kind of films that can substitute that lone pebble in the proverbial pond with the force of an atomic bomb. In this way, when it is done properly, the essential tragedy of a single person can be a worthy substitute for all the pain and suffering we have inflicted upon each other since time immemorial.

At its root, Ryan Coogler’s film can be seen as a rudimentary flashback tragedy, one that begins with the singular, fateful moment in our protagonist’s life that changes everything forever and then starts from an earlier point to show you how they got there. The difference here is the story is real and the moment in question as the film opens is the actual shaky cellphone footage of the very point in time when Oscar Grant, a young black man from Oakland, is fatally shot by a transit cop at a BART station in San Francisco while bound with handcuffs and being crushed to the cement floor.

Because the story is true, and because Coogler’s indie status allows him to avoid such things, the film is told as simply and cleanly as possible, unadorned with Hollywood-style noble arcs and hokey symbolisms. The director has correctly surmised the story stands on its own and needs few if any of the stock emotional tricks filmmakers typically employ when dealing with such heavy, loaded material.

Oscar (played in the film by Michael B. Jordan) is many things: a former drug felon who is still slinging on the side to help make ends meet; a sweetly affectionate and loving son to his long-suffering and oak-strong mother (Octavia Spencer); a hothead whose flash temper, we are to understand, has gotten him in trouble before; but, most of all, a devoted father to his young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and the girl’s mother, his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz). In the course of a day and night, we see Oscar wrestle with the different elements of his personality, the ways in which he finds himself crossing his best interests, before he and Sophina go with friends to the New Year’s fireworks show in downtown San Francisco and then take that fateful train home again, a trip Oscar is never allowed to complete.

As simple as its conceit might be - the last 24 hours in the life of a dangerously ordinary man - the film would have had much less chance of succeeding without a superior performance from its lead. Jordan brings out all of Oscar’s various facets without ever laying the pathos on too thickly or making him into some kind of holy martyr. Against common wisdom, it is precisely his down-to-earth quality and his refusal to telegraph Oscar’s eventual tragedy that makes the performance - and the film - so commanding. Coogler, who developed his screenplay with help from the Sundance Institute, has an innate sense of the simple rhythms in human interactions. Whether Oscar is furious, silly or crestfallen, the scenes have a simple clarity that arrest our attention without ever demanding it.

This isn’t a simple message movie. It’s not trying to teach us something so obvious we already know the answer. It’s simply stating the case for one young man who is attempting to get his life together when he gets waylaid on the wrong train, at the wrong time. The film begins with a stark bit of cinema verite and ends with something even more distressing: the anguish of a little girl who doesn’t yet understand she will never see her father again.

Fruitvale Station

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Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rating: R, for some violence, language throughout and some drug use

Running time: 90 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 07/26/2013

Print Headline: Fruitvale Station

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