Nothing about the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant makes sense. For his keen, impassioned debut, writer/director Ryan Coogler avoids one of the most common mistakes seen in based-on-a-true-story movies, he doesn’t try to make it make sense. It shouldn’t, because one version of what actually happened is the first thing shown in the film. A grainy cellphone video taken from the open door of a BART train car paused at an Oakland station shows a few young black men being held down by a few white transit police; there’s a minor-looking scuffle and then a shot goes off. The momentum of those shaky images, is stuttering and randomized. When the tragic moment happens, it doesn’t feel right to happen like that. Not yet.
Coogler’s film is all prologue, covering Oscar’s life in his last day leading up to that shattering event. Unlike the shooting itself, which he recreates in brisk and clear-eyed fashion, it has a quiet rhythmic pulse; the pace of a heart still beating and lungs still breathing. Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar, a 22-year-old Oakland guy of indeterminate means whose girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) have suffered through plenty of his nonsense in the past. The only time that Coogler steps out of his strict time frame is a flashback to Oscar years earlier in San Quentin where his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) comes for a visit, only to be interrupted by Oscar’s fight with another inmate. Sickened by his display, she walks out, leaving her teenage son under a pile of guards screaming to get a hug from his mom. Back in the present, Oscar seems none the wiser, getting physical with his former boss at the supermarket where he was fired for being late and setting up a deal to sell a felony-sized bag of weed.
Clearly, Coogler hasn’t made Oscar a stained-glass saint. Coogler and Jordan (a steady, lively presence) show Oscar as a kid (he seems too immature to be called a young man) whose worst sin is bad impulse control. He’s the fun dad, roughhousing gleefully with Tatiana and charming Sophina out of being angry with him. Mom is a harder nut for him to crack, but since New Year’s Day is her birthday, he goes all out to play the role of good son: buying crabs for dinner, bringing presents, chatting everyone up at the family dinner. Each smile he gives and receives, each slap on the back, each little moment of kindness (the hurt dog he cradles close in the street, the lost-looking white girl at the store he hooks up with his grandmother for some fish-fry tips), all notch up as yet more unnecessary waste.
Coogler sets himself a difficult task for Fruitvale Station, but it’s one that he generally handles with aplomb. The first third or so of the film has a hard time catching gears. The screenplay (a mixed bag of real-life events and wholly invented ones) doesn’t seem to know what to do with its protagonist, so it just follows him around on an ambling day where he keeps coming up against meaningful moments. For a filmmaker who so rigorously holds back in the emotionally thunderous final stretch and lets the actions speak for themselves, Coogler makes a few large missteps here. That scene with the dog reads as jammed in and false, as does one where we see Oscar coming to a life’s decision while staring pensively at the Bay. They feel like we’re all of a sudden watching an Important Moment in a film and it detracts from an otherwise honest piece of tragic storytelling.
Coogler’s a smart and savvy enough artist to mostly avoid such tricks, particularly in the scenes leading up to and immediately following the shooting. Without emotion-tweaking music or too much fictional streamlining and highlighting, he captures a sense of the random and pointless horror of a young man shot in the back while lying on his stomach, which seems to come out of a clear blue sky. If it all made sense, it might seem normal.