Scott Foundas sends a dispatch into the Voice and LA Weekly: “You could hear a pin drop during the first Sundance screening of writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale, an enormously powerful and moving debut feature based on the shooting death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by Oakland transit police in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler opens the film—one of the standouts of this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition—with pixilated camera-phone video of the real incident, then flashes back 24 hours to take us through the last day of Grant’s abbreviated life. The result is a richly observed portrait of working-class African-American life and of one man’s flawed but sincere efforts to make things better for himself and his young family. Taken together with another Dramatic Competition highlight, Andrew Donsunmu’s previously discussed Mother of George, Fruitvale also offers further evidence of the American indie black cinema renaissance that has emerged at Sundance over the last few years.”
“First and foremost,” writes Sean Smithson at Twitch, Fruitvale “is a love story. Love between Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, The Wire, Chronicle), and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz, Be Kind Rewind, Nip/Tuck), love between Oscar and his little daughter Tatiana (played by the wonderful newcomer Ariana Neal), love between Oscar and his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer, The Help, the up-coming Snowpiercer), and the love between Oscar and his community, which underpins the entire drive of Fruitvale.”
“Coogler, who, at 26, is the same age his subject would have been today, puts the life of Oscar Grant onscreen with conviction that makes it clear why Grant’s killing became a cause celebre and the springboard for massive protests against police brutality in Oakland,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. “In a smart way, Coogler plays with knee-jerk perceptions; one look at Oscar driving around in his rig might be enough to convince outsiders, and whites in particular, to be wary of this guy—a paranoid perspective that will rebound with devastating repercussions later when the whites with this attitude turn out to be cops. Whatever his past transgressions, Oscar is now very much trying to do the right thing.”
Jordan “leaves no doubt he’s ready for leading-man status with a typically charismatic and naturalistic performance that puts auds firmly on Grant’s side,” writes Geoff Berkshire in Variety. “Few would deny Grant’s killing was senseless and deplorable, but Fruitvale mostly functions to further the transformation of a flesh-and-blood man into an unintentional martyr.”
“Fruitvale is largely sustained by Jordan’s career-making performance and the way Coogler uses it to analyze his subject,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “While in death, Grant was martyred for causes ranging from police brutality to race, his blackness is treated as beside the point. Instead, Grant comes across as an everyman slacker with the same problems that plague any number of lower-class young adults. It’s a fascinating investigation into the contrast between media perception and intimate truths.”
Eugene Hernandez interviews Coogler, Dan Schoenbrun has five questions for him at Filmmaker, and at Vulture, Jada Yuan talks with Jordan. At Indiewire, Jay A. Fernandez and Anne Thompson report that the Weinstein Co. has picked up Fruitvale: “One source puts the final bid in the $2.5 million range, which includes international sales rights.”
Updates, 1/26: Time Out New York‘s David Fear notes that “as the film leads up to that fateful night, every opportunity to milk a tragic moment or overplay an emotional response (really, you had to kill a dog?!) is grabbed with both hands. Still, you can see why people have singled Coogler out. He’s got chops; once he realizes how to temper his storytelling with a bit more nuance and not pitch everything at tsunami-wave level, he’ll be one to watch. Consider this a baby step.”
“Prepare for a four-hankie movie,” warns Nora Chute at Thompson on Hollywood. “I didn’t just cry during the film, I ugly cried (think Clare Danes), and judging by the sobs heard throughout the Monday afternoon press screening at the Holiday, I wasn’t alone.”
“How can you not cry at so tragic a story?” asks Eric D. Snider at Movies.com. “Where Coogler goes wrong is in trying to bring it back to reality. The movie ends with on-screen titles telling us what became of the cop who shot Oscar, how video of the shooting was seen by millions on the Internet, and how protests and demonstrations soon followed…. But in doing this, Coogler jars us out of our ‘based on a true story’ mindset and invites us to scrutinize what we’ve just seen as a faithful and authentic re-creation of events. Such scrutiny doesn’t do the movie any favors.”
At Entertainment Weekly, Jeff Labrecque interviews Coogler and Lisa Schwarzbaum gives Fruitvale her “The Best Drama Most Likely to Break Your Heart” award.
Update, 5/13: Fruitvale is now Fruitvale Station and it’ll be screening at Cannes in Un Certain Regard. At Slate, Aisha Harris takes a close look at this new trailer:
Update, 5/16: Anne Thompson interviews Coogler.
Updates, 5/17: “I could have done without the sappy, slow-motion foot race to the car,” writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks, “while Oscar’s infant daughter is surely too perfectly adorable a specimen to convince. But the robust acting and sharp sense of the Bay Area milieu glides us nicely over the film’s few soft patches.”
At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang argues that “the simplicity and elegance of [the film’s] tight countdown of growing dread is unfortunately undercut by some questionable narrative decisions that tug at the leash of the film’s factual basis.” Much of the narrative “just feels too constructed, and so ironically does precisely the opposite to what it’s designed to—it slightly softens the true force of the tragedy by reminding us that there is fiction at work here too.”
Update, 5/18: Nick Roddick for Sight & Sound: “Fruitvale Station is a genuine eye-opener in its depiction of the way in which casual racism still permeates urban America.”
Update, 5/19: “As the developing tragedy of Oscar’s murder comes to the fore in the story, the character of Wanda comes increasingly into play as the film’s powerful moral compass,” argues Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “Her screen time is limited, but she holds it with a majesty and sorrow that convey everything about a mother’s pain and lost hopes in her luminous eyes.”
Update, 5/20: “A more interesting approach would have been to retrace Grant’s last steps through the eyes of the people who met him on that day,” suggests Adam Woodward at Little White Lies. “Fruitvale Station is an accomplished debut feature, and Coogler deserves credit for humanising and not sensationalising the events surrounding this tragic real-life story. You just can’t help feeling there’s a better way to tell it.”
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