Occasionally, a film will open while real life events of a matching tone or theme are playing out. Being coincidental, the distributor could not have planned the movie's opening for a better time, as the news story will make the relevance of the film all the more potent. Such was the case with the release of 'Fruitvale Station.' The Weinstein Company's nationwide expansion of 'Fruitvale' happened just as the ruling in the George Zimmerman trial came in. With the trail revolving around a man shooting an unarmed black teen, the thematic and equally true story of 'Fruitvale' matched the unjust sentiment. It's not my intention to get political with this review, and I certainly will not push my opinion of the Zimmerman case on you, but 'Fruitvale Station' undeniably gained public traction because of the link between the two – yet it definitely didn't need the Zimmerman trial to be deemed a successful and powerful film.
Having heard the buzz from Sundance (where it won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards) and knowing that it was based upon a true story that I wasn't familiar with, prior to seeing 'Fruitvale Station,' I avoided spoilers and news about the real story at all cost. Little did I know that my efforts were asinine because the movie's opening sequence is the ending of the true story. If you wish to keep the details in the dark – like I felt I needed to do – then skip to the next paragraph now. Early in the morning of New Year's Day of 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by a transit police officer at the the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Fruitvale station just outside Oakland, California. The film begins with actual cell phone footage showing unarmed Grant, who wasn't aggressive or violent, being shot. It's haunting, giving chills and an uneasy feeling that lasts the duration of the film because you know what's to come.
Immediately following that real footage, we're introduced to the actor portraying our real-life central character Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan). We meet his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana. Oscar isn't immediately portrayed in the greatest light. We learn that he's been unfaithful to Sophina and that he's selling marijuana – not exactly the most model citizen, but he's trying to change. It's New Year's Eve and with the start of new year, Oscar's trying to make good decisions and set his life straight. He's going to make 2009 a better year than the previous for him, his girlfriend, and their daughter.
I'm aware that many folks look at 'Fruitvale Station' as a propaganda film. It's criticized as a film about a black kid who's thrown into a bad situation by white men, despite doing everything he can to be a great person. Sure, the story has been embellished to make Oscar even more of a sympathetic character, but that has never been a secret. First-time feature director Ryan Coogler grew up in Oakland under very similar circumstances. He knows this lifestyle better than anyone. And knowing how hard it is to break free from it and how he could have been in Oscar's very position, he decided to infuse bits of his and his friends' stories into the screenplay. I hardly deem his openly confessed intention a work of manipulation; instead, it's the addition of another aspect of the story that he knew all too well. If anything, through the characters of Oscar and his mother (Octavia Spencer), the way that this whole story comes to a close and the facts shared before the credits make this a story of love and hope. Sure, the first time I watched it it made me furious – the actions of some people are heartbreaking – but it's somewhat uplifting at the same time.
'Fruitvale Station' is well-acted, well-directed and very well-executed. Shot on a minimal budget, it's a strong example of the potential of indie filmmaking. It's an unforgettable film that may not warrant repeat viewing, but is definitely worth giving a chance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay have placed 'Fruitvale Station' in a Blu-ray combo pack that contains a Region A BD-25, a DVD and a redeemable code for both a Digital Copy and an Ultraviolet copy. The discs and code are housed in a standard blue keepcase. Prior to the main menu, there are forced Anchor Bay and Weinstein vanity reels, as well as skippable trailers for 'The Butler' and 'Madela: Long Walk to Freedom.'
'Fruitvale Station' has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. It's certainly disheartening to see a new film placed on 25-gig disc, but when the film is shot on a 16mm camera, it's understandable; no matter what size disc was used, 'Fruitvale' was never meant to look great – video quality-wise, that is.
The most obvious sign of the film stock size is the amount of grain. It's noticeable and it's ever-present. Throughout the 85-minute movie, sharp details come and go, but are never as constant as they are in 35mm or digitally-shot pictures. Colors are often wildly and unnaturally vibrant. This over saturation removes any textural details from the colored objects. Deep blacks often result in crushing. When all is said and done, the majority of 'Fruitvale Station' carries the look of a '70s B-movie – but that is the result of the film's original quality (which I'm told from those who screened it at Sundance was just as flawed there as it is on Blu-ray) and no fault of the Blu-ray itself.
The imperfections that I didn't expect to see were in the actual print – dirt, grime, fibers, scratches, and so on. But considering that the rest of the film carries an aged 16mm feel, these aren't any more distracting than the stock-caused imperfections.
'Fruitvale Station' has been given a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that's not great, but just fine. It's an equal companion to the far-from perfect video quality.
The most noticeably lacking area of this disc is dynamic mixing. Settings that should potentially carry great effects are very mild. A scene on the rocky shores of the bay feature the splish-splash sound of tiny waves gushing back and forth, but those sounds equally emit from all channels as opposed to being mixed uniquely to specific speakers. A parking lot on a busy street carries the sound of traffic, only it's mixed at the same level all around so there's no distinct direction to the sound. The majority of the film plays out this way; however, there are a few strong sequences that will catch your attention.
As Oscar drives around town, passing cars and surrounding traffic play out very well. Objects can be tracked as they pass from one side of the space to the other. In one scene, an off-screen vehicle speeds/screeches around a corner and hits a dog. Although we barely catch of glimpse of the reckless car as it careens away from the scene of the incident, we can track its off-screen motion across the back of the room – which is quite impressive because the camera's POV swivels around and the vehicle's sound continues to be in the same proper location.
The vocal mix is great, but very occasionally shows its raw nature. A few moments sound like a boom mic is bumped or hit mid-conversation and few other loud instances crackle due to the levels being too high. Unlike the flaws in video quality that almost added character to the film, these ones – although minor – stick out.
While 'Fruitvale Station' wasn't my top pick of 2013, it was definitely in my Top 10. It takes a widely known true story, places the characters in position for you to easily empathize with – no matter your age, race or gender – adds elements to make you feel like it "hits too close to home" and shares an unexpectedly positive message. I understand the complaints that it's emotionally manipulative (although I disagree), but feel that it spells out the film's climactic events honestly. It doesn't shy away from the known facts, nor does it jump to conclusions. Instead, it offers the emotional outcome that we should feel after similar circumstances. Shot on a tiny budget, the Blu-ray's video and audio qualities lack, but rarely distract from the moving story at hand. The nearly 50 minutes of special features are much more than we're typically given with smaller indie pictures, so it's nice to at least have extra content. If you haven't yet had a chance to experience 'Fruitvale Station,' I highly recommend watching the Blu-ray. It's not a happy-go-lucky film that you'll want to watch again and again, but it's definitely worth seeing at least once.