Saturday, August 3, 2013

Indie Breakout

2013 has been an amazing year for independent film. Sure, most peoples' money has been going to tentpole blockbusters like Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness and Man of Steel, but for those looking for something a bit more unique, there has been no shortage of small-market films that have managed to reach a mainstream audience. Standouts include Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, Jeff Nichols' Mud, Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's The Way, Way Back and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, with no end in sight for original fare outside the purview of major production companies and their bottom-dollar desires. Not that there's anything wrong with wanting to make money; it's just nice to see films that wasn't designed to pry the largest dollar amount it can from audiences. And the best of those right now might be Fruitvale Station, the freshman effort from 27 year-old director Ryan Coogler.

Fruitvale Station is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed black man who was gunned down by transit cops in Oakland on New Year's Day 2009. The movie looks at his last 24 hours, struggling to get his life and relationships on track, and culminating in that fateful incident that is still remembered today by the city's residents.
With racial profiling and police brutality hot topics at the moment, Fruitvale Station certainly feels prevalent in the age of Trayvon Martin, whose similar death has spurred the whole country into a fervor over racial tensions. Seeing this film certainly hammers the point that men like Oscar and Trayvon cannot merely be characterized by the color of their skin if we're going to stop incidents like this from taking place. Coogler does an excellent job humanizing his subject, pitting him against the same everyday struggles many people go through on a daily basis. This is especially thanks to the performance of Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle), an actor who has shown over the years to know how to inhabit any type of character. Jordan makes us LIKE Oscar, despite the young man's flaws, and that's arguably the most important aspect as to making Fruitvale Station work. Thanks to Jordan and Coogler, we see his friendliness, love for his mother and daughter, and willingness to help others (to the point where he connects a friendly stranger with his grandmother so the woman can learn a decent fish fry), combined with the empathy we feel as he tries to get his issues under control.
But Coogler also succeeds in managing to tell the story he wanted without making his hero saintly and unbelievable. Oscar has his fair share of defects; he cheated on his girlfriend and the mother of his daughter; he sells pot, and had served time in prison for doing so; he lost his day job due to excessive tardiness, and then hides the truth about his unemployment; he is quick to anger and will fight at the drop of a hat. And that's all okay. It's important that Oscar's character not be made completely black-and-white, and Coogler's ability to present all sides of his subject in rapid succession, without us thinking any less of him as a person when we see the whole picture. Oscar isn't EVIL, nor is he the most astounding human being out there. He is - the story shows - just like most of us, just trying to get through today and into tomorrow, and taking the best he can from every experience.
Jordan also has a strong cast around him, most notable Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as Oscar's long-suffering and strong-willed mother. Though Spencer's scenes are used mainly for exposition, her sheer skill as an actress keeps them from feeling wasted or unworthy of our viewing. Melonie Diaz also shines when given the chance as Oscar's girlfriend, as does child actress Ariana Neal as his precocious daughter, but their scenes are merely at the fringes, and though their presence is often felt, the characters are often simply absent. Despite the fact that much of this movie relies on Jordan's singular performance, Coogler has at least put together a cast that can fill in the holes where his lead actor's otherwise-perfect presence is not enough.
While we'll never really be sure what was going through young Oscar Grant's head when he was alone on New Years Eve - Coogler presents character-building plot devices, but little we can point to as obviously fact - one thing is certain: his life ended tragically in a manner that ought never to have occurred in this day and age. And while the plot occasionally hovers delicately close to melodrama, that message is what Coogler manages to get across in his film, a celebration of life and death and the hope that the Oscar Grants and Trayvon Martins of the future will not suffer the same fates. That Fruitvale Station also happens to be an evocative drama and compelling filmmaking - among the year's best - is almost a side note.