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Letter from Cannes: Why "Fruitvale Station" Is Already an Oscar Shoo-In

Bennett Cohen | May 17, 2013 | Story Reviews

Is a first-time feature that lacks star power and is about one of the saddest, most awful stories in recent Bay Area history worth a two-hour wait in the cold, Cannes rain?

The answer—at least when it comes to Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, is yes. Definitely. Absolutely—yes. The movie—which I just viewed, wetly, at Cannes's Un Certain Regarde competition—tells the story of Oscar Grant, who was famously shot dead by a BART police officer in Oakland's Fruitvale station in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2009. Starring Michael B. Jordan (best known for his roles in The Wire and Friday Night Lights), it's a powerful character study that opens up a window into Grant’s life, offering a glimmer of hope and redemption before it reaches its tragic end.

The first hour feels slow in places, but it's slow with a purpose. We get ample evidence of Grant’s failings—his time in San Quentin (which comes back to haunt him during his ill-fated ride on BART), his drug dealing, violence, and irresponsibility. But we also get a vision of his life as a work in progress, with real promise for a better future. He makes plenty of mistakes, but he seems to be changing, caring for his daughter, being true to his girlfriend, and turning away from crime and the easy money it brings. Grant doesn't even want to go out that New Year’s Eve—his girlfriend insists. And it is his mother (played by Octavia Spencer, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help) who convinces him to ride on BART, thinking it’ll be safer than driving.

Oakland-raised filmmaker Ryan Coogler takes us into the heart and soul of Grant, and in doing so reveals the full breadth of his tragedy. Coogler not only gives us Grant as he was; he defines Grant as he might have been, if not for a single, senseless bullet. I'm not a softie when it comes to films (I know it sounds heartless, but Beasts of the Southern Wild, last year's Sundance-to-Cannes indie hit, didn't move me an inch). Yet Fruitvale Station brought me to tears.

No one involved in the film is a household name—yet. But that could change soon. Spencer already won one Oscar, and here she shows even greater range. Melonie Diaz gives a shattering performance as the grieving girlfriend. And Jordan has the feel of a younger, slighter Denzel Washington, with a similar mix of sensitivity, swagger, and volatility.

As for Coogler, this is the sort of debut that can echo for years—maybe decades. It's always a risk to predict, nine months in advance, how movies will fare come Oscar time, but with the Weinsteins behind Fruitvale Station (they snagged it up at Sundance), nominations for Coogler, Jordan, Diaz, Spencer, and the film as a whole are so possible that if I could lay down money on it in Vegas, I would. And I'd even stand in the rain to do it.

Screenwriter and San Francisco contributor Bennett Cohen is in Cannes working on a new film project.

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