Is Fruitvale Station really the most powerful film of the year, bound for Oscar glory, or is it an emotionally manipulative, counterfactual melodrama? A roundup of reviews reveals surprisingly divergent opinions on writer-director Ryan Coogler's film. Here's what the critics had to say:
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: "The movie is modest in its ambition and powerful in its reverberations," wrote LaSalle, arguing that although they movie did "fictionalize" the story, it did not do so "in a irresponsible way," but rather to "take Oscar Grant's story and make it universal." LaSalle also wrote that although Jordan did "lay in on thick" at times, his performance built "belief and sympathy." 3 out of 4 stars.
A.O. Scott, The New York Times: Coogler allows his nuanced characters to traverse the Bay Area without turning them into one-note symbols, which makes up for some of the more ill-handled devices in the film: "The lost dog [Grant] encounters at a gas station might as well have 'Metaphor' stamped on its collar. But Mr. Coogler... has enough faith in his actors and in the intrinsic interest of the characters' lives to keep overt sentimentality and message-mongering to a minimum." No rating given.
Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times: In his directorial debut, Ryan Coogler has shown remarkable talent for subtle, naturalistic filmmaking: "It's Coogler's empathetic talent to be alive to what is happening on-screen, to know how much weight to place on any given moment, and best of all, to understand that the difference between giving things their due (rather than overdoing it) is the key to dramatic impact." No rating given.
Claudia Puig, USA Today: Audiences can't help but hope against hope for Grant, making Fruitvale Station not only a compelling film, but due to the recent trial of George Zimmerman, it is also a timely and important one: "Most importantly, it reveals a face, heart, and soul behind the heartbreaking headlines." 4 out of 4 stars.
Jonathan Kiefer, SF Weekly: It's not a great film, and though Coogler "has taken the high road" with the on-screen portrayal of Grant's killer, Mehserle, he inadequately addresses Grant's faults: "By contrast, his goodness is overstressed, saddling Jordan with insufficient context, awkward dialogue, and contrived tension-inflating tricks." No rating given.
Kyle Smith, The New York Post: Octavia Spencer is riveting as Oscar Grant's mother, but the praise the film has received overlooks its unevenness and half-supported claims that Grant was changing. Smith thought the film was more agit-prop than serious drama, saying that by leaving out key facts, the film was, "primarily a way of claiming sociopolitical importance and the awards that go with it." 2.5 out of 4 stars.
Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal: The author wishes Coogler hadn't portrayed the lethal cop "as such a brute," but overall, finds Fruitvale Station a poetic achievement that speaks to the unparalleled talents of the young director: "Fruitvale Station is a directorial debut of limitless promise; as a first feature it's almost miraculous." No rating given.
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve: While Michael B. Jordan performs well as Oscar Grant, Coogler's heavy-handed focus on a redemption-cut-short narrative does not allow for exploration of the shades of gray in Grant's character and ignores the larger implications of the murder trial that followed his death: "Because the film doesn't get into the aftermath of the Fruitvale shooting, whatever nuance it can claim is reserved entirely to its portrait of Grant as a troubled young man trying to clean up his act." 2 out of 5 stars.
Bob Mondello, NPR: Fruitvale Station isn't earth-shattering, and doesn't really say anything surprising or profound about Oscar Grant or the case, but it might get audiences to look twice at the "flawed young man you might not give a second thought if you saw him on the street." No rating given.
Randy Myers, San Jose Mercury News: Michael B. Jordan displays compassion and presence as Grant, but it's Ryan Coogler who deserves equal, if not more, praise for highlighting the complexities of Oscar Grant's character and successfully recreating the world he lived in: "It would have been easy for Coogler to have simply made the film a one-dimensional eulogy or a run-of-the-mill cinematic bio that chronicled Grant's life from point A to Z. Instead, he gives us a man on the cusp of change, paying exquisite attention to the details that made him who he was." 3.5 out of 4 stars.