**This review contains spoilers**
After a stint in prison, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) returns home to the Bay Area to start over with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and his young daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Oscar slowly breaks away from his life as a drug dealer, and with help from his family and friends, Oscar prepares to celebrate his mother’s birthday.
But after the party, Wanda (Octavia Spencer) encourages her son to use the train to fight the crowds for a New Year’s celebration. 2009 is minutes away, as Oscar, Sophina, and their friends celebrate on the train, but Oscar runs into an old enemy from jail. After a scuffle, Oscar and his friends are aggressively detained and questioned by a group of police officers, and the situation takes a tragic turn for the worst, when one of the officers draws his gun.
To be honest, I really didn’t think that much of Michael B. Jordan, when I saw him in Chronicle. He gave the second best performance in that film (Dane DeHaan’s Andrew is easily number one), but I can honestly say I didn’t see anything special in him. Fast forward to Fruitvale Station, and Jordan delivers a strong performance in the leading role. Oscar is a troubled man with a bad temper, who makes some questionable choices in life, but Jordan is able to reel you in, and convince the audience to feel sympathy for Oscar. Despite all his flaws, Oscar is a loving father, family man, and son. Jordan is conflicted, as he struggles to control his rage fits, while balancing his softer side for the people he loves, and when the ending comes, you’ll be sitting there and wondering “what could’ve been?” if this man had more time to turn his life around, and figure things out.
I’m still amazed at how far Octavia Spencer has come. Back in 2009, she was killed off in the opening minutes of Halloween 2, as one of the nurses at the hospital. But a handful of years after that, she went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in The Help. One of Spencer’s best scenes here is during a flashback of a jail visit to Oscar. Wanda is beyond frustrated and disappointed in Oscar, Oscar begs for a hug, and Wanda walks away, as the prison guards try and restrain a furious Oscar. The look of disappointment and shame on Spencer’s face, as Wanda walks away with her back turned to Oscar is the backbone of that scene. And I usually enjoy Melonie Diaz more in comedy roles (i.e. Be Kind Rewind), but she’s a good fit for the role of Oscar’s supportive and stern girlfriend.
If you’ve seen the trailers, TV spots, or know about the real life story that inspired this film, you should know what’s going to happen at the end. But the scene at the train station still packs a powerful, emotional punch regardless. By this point, you’ve built a connection with Oscar, and despite all his flaws, you can’t help but think about the “what ifs,” if Oscar made the decision to stay away from the train. Plus, Ryan Coogler (the director and he wrote the screenplay) does a phenomenal job of setting up the sequence of events leading up to the finale. There’s a calm sense of joy, as Oscar, Sophina, and friends celebrate on the train, and then everything goes downhill at a neck breaking hectic pace, setting the stage for a tense finale.
With help from a strong cast, and Ryan Coogler’s work behind the camera, Fruitvale Station is one of the better films in 2013. I’m sure everyone’s seen the TV spot with quotes of praise from LeBron James, Denzel Washington, Jaime Foxx, and Spike Lee. Plus, there’s the 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Fruitvale Station will be a nice boost for Jordan’s career, but I wouldn’t expect any Oscar nods for this one. The July release date is going to hurt any chances of that, and by the time November, December, and January roll around, Fruitvale will be lost in the shuffle amongst the Hollywood heavyweights during Oscar season.