Saturday, July 13, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Fruitvale Station


Back in January, "Fruitvale Station" caused a major stir at the Sundance Film Festival. It brought back back the awful memories of a tragic New Year's Eve incident, touching the hearts of critics and audiences alike. By the end of the festival, it had swept both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards. Suffice it to say, I had high hopes for this film. After watching it on Friday, I can now say that it almost lives up to the hype.
The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a young father who is on a collision course with fate on New Year's Eve 2008. As we spend a day with him, this urban drama establishes a documentary-like feel as it recreates the events surrounding that day. In fact, it feels more authentic than some documentaries in that there's no music cues or fancy editing to make it more entertaining. In addition, the script stays true to the manner of speech and attitude of its urban characters. The dialogue isn't all that eloquent and by extension, the plot (i.e. before the incident) is a bit mundane. Whether this works for you or not is entirely up to personal preference. To me, it made the script feel thin. That's not to say however that the direction of the film is sub-par. On the contrary, it's an impressive feat of realism. The plot is all about arriving at the impending big event and in a way, it makes it all the more powerful. Considering the serious nature of what happens, it's impressive that a newcomer would have the conviction to take the "less is more" approach. He could have easily made it more maudlin, but he respectfully reels it in. What unfolds is just an ordinary day, abruptly cut short by a shocking act of injustice. When it happens, it's so staggeringly real that you feel like you're watching a friend suffer. It's surprisingly unsentimental, but extremely powerful and that's all due to the controlled direction and outstanding performances.
I don't know if it was the director or the actors' decision to underplay the sentiment, but bravo to them. I was in tears all the way to the end. Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz are all astonishing in their roles. Diaz is perfectly cast (see "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" for a similarly adept performance) and Spencer's portrayal is such a beacon of strength that even the viewer could take solace in her calm presence. As the main character, Jordan reminded me of a young Denzel Washington, which is of course a major compliment. What's so great about the character is that he isn't a saint, just like some of Denzel's recent roles. He formerly sold drugs, served time in prison, cheated on his girlfriend and yet, you are absolutely drawn to him. Despite his past, he's a good person deep down who loves the women in his life above all else (his mother, grandmother, daughter and girlfriend). He also had positive aspirations for his future, which is so encouraging given his African-American urban background. Jordan uses these character traits perfectly, combining his handsome charm with a fierce intensity that captivates the viewer.
Oscar's background doesn't really mean much in the long run though. Your reaction to his demise doesn't hinge on your love for the character. The film is about a violation of a human being's right to life, plain and simple. Just like similarly themed documentaries, it's infuriating and saddening. Although it left me an emotional wreck, I'm grateful to have witnessed this affecting cinematic recreation.

In terms of Oscar prospect, the film has a lot of potential. I can definitely see a strong narrative being built around the subject matter (especially considering the similarities to the hot topic Trayvon Martin case) that could drive it all the way to a Best Picture nomination. Furthermore, I think Ryan Coogler could follow last year's Sundance phenom Benh Zeitlin and nab a Best Director nom too. Acting wise, Michael B. Jordan should definitely be in the mix for Best Actor. I would love to see Octavia Spencer get some recognition too, but I don't see it happening at the moment. As I said earlier, the script isn't as strong as it could be and I'm therefore a bit iffy on a nomination for the writing.

10 comments:

  1. interesting to hear your thoughts on why this film has received (while largely positive) a wide range of reactions..I can't wait to see this film but I don't think it opens at my local art-house theater for another few weeks...it's also interesting to hear that you think Michael B. Jordan will have an easier time than Octavia Spencer at getting a nomination...sight unseen, it would seem that supporting actress would be the easier category to get into as it's less crowded...Anyway I'm glad to hear that Michael B. Jordan is playing his cards right because he showed real potential on Friday Night Lights

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    1. Ya know, I'm already feeling like I've underestimated the film. Supporting Actress and Screenplay could definitely happen. Especially with the recent George Zimmerman trial, this could be the zeitgeist movie this year.

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  2. I'm sad to read that the movie isn't getting a UK release at the moment. Not even next year when it's out in Scandinavia and France. I'll have to pick it up on import or maybe streaming as it looks really interesting.

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    1. I hope you get to see it soon enough. It's a good one.

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  3. So true, the film has real heart and emotional involvement because it is so "day in the life of".

    I was lucky enough to nab a 20 minute in person interview with the filmmaker Ryan Coogler!

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  4. Amazing review! I'm so excited to see this and I agree that it will be interesting to see where this lands come awards season.

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    1. Thanks Lindsay! :)

      I would be surprised if it doesn't gain some significant Oscar nods.

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