"Fruitvale Station" is a tragedy as fresh as today's headlines, as moving as losing someone close to you. A re-telling of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young black man gunned down by a transit cop in front of scores of witnesses in Oakland on New Year's Day in 2009, Ryan Coogler's often wrenching film begins with that death - captured on cell phone video - and takes us back through a life of hot-tempered blunders but compassionate potential, an ex-con who might have turned the corner just as it all came to an end for him.
Michael B. Jordan ("Red Tails") is never less than riveting as Oscar, and he has to be. Coogler's film is built on the mundane, routine actions of an ordinary New Year's Eve. Oscar runs errands, buying crabs for his mother's birthday party.
"You ain't payin' for nothin' on your birthday."
He charms the girlfriend Sofina (Melonie Diaz, warm beneath a brittle exterior) he has sometimes cheated on. He dotes on their daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He weeps when a roaming dog that he just petted at a convenience store is killed by a speeding driver. He sweet-talks a mistrusting store owner into letting strangers use his bathroom just as the man is closing up. Oscar gives every indication he's a guy who gives people the benefit of the doubt.
But there are hints at the more complicated young man he was. He's overly helpful to a pretty customer at that supermarket (Ahna O'Reilly), help that is both kind and kind of like flirting, Sofina's worst nightmare.
He begs, then threatens, to get back a job he's lost because he was always late for work.
"You want me sellin' dope, bruh?"
He sells dope even as he wonders if it's time for a "fresh start."
And then we see flashbacks - to San Quentin, flashing his short temper at prison visits from his mom, confronting other inmates. His past and present, the film shows us, was under his control. The events of that fateful night? Perhaps not.
In one telling scene, Oscar and his friends - veteran hoodie-wearers - get nervous when other young black men in hoodies approach their corner of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train. Say what you will, the movie suggests, but wearing clothes that hide your identity in public spaces makes others leery of you. Coogler's way of defusing that moment is delightful, optimistic.
"Fruitvale Station" uses its spare 90 minutes beautifully, giving us a fairly even-handed review of a life still forming, but snuffed out. It touches on the myriad of accidental circumstances and underlying causes that underpin an awful event like this one - a lifetime of bad choices, wrong place/wrong time, racial profiling, high stress situations that spiral out of control and simple "testosterone poisoning."
But Coogler and Jordan's greatest achievements are in humanizing a statistic, putting blemishes on an icon - Oscar and his case became notorious - and letting us grieve for the tragedy that happened and the potential that was lost that fateful New Year's at Oakland's Fruitvale Station.
Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer. Rated R (90 minutes)
3 1/2 stars out of 4 / Grade A