“Fruitvale Station” begins with images many viewers will be familiar with: shaky cellphone footage of Grant’s encounter with Oakland transit police who had detained him and some friends after an altercation on a train. Coogler then cuts to several hours earlier, when Grant — portrayed in an impressively mercurial performance by “The Wire’s” Michael B. Jordan — is making New Year’s resolutions with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and vowing to do better. It takes only 30 days to form a habit, he tells her at one point, then it becomes second nature.
As Coogler’s camera follows Grant through the ensuing day, he emerges as someone who’s trying to break old habits — whether it’s curbing an intemperate lack of self-discipline or engaging in the same drug-dealing that sent him to prison. But Grant’s encounters with friends, family and strangers are defined by quotidian joys as much as darker struggles, as he shops for crabs for his mother’s birthday dinner that night, arrives at school to pick up the young daughter he adores (played in an adorably spirited turn by Ariana Neal) and puts his grandmother on the phone to help a stranger with fish-frying tips.
Coogler, who grew up in Oakland, filmed much of “Fruitvale Station” in real-life locations and indulges in one or two flights of artistic license: An episode with an injured dog didn’t happen, for example. But the dramatizations serve a larger truth of Grant’s life, which is that he could be as caring, warm and tender as he was impulsive and quick to anger. Coogler steadfastly avoids over-idealizing his protagonist, preferring to introduce viewers to the human whose flesh-and-blood complexity was hopelessly obscured once his death made the headlines.
Anyone familiar with those headlines — and the demonstrations and criminal trial that ensued — will know how “Fruitvale Station” ends. But Coogler’s intimate, spontaneous style and skillful pacing make the movie a genuine, if wrenching, nail-biter. When Grant’s mother (Octavia Spencer) urges him to take the train instead of driving into San Francisco for New Year’s Eve, what has been a lively and revealing portrait takes on the dimension and weight of true tragedy (heightened by a sound design dominated by Oakland’s BART trains, whose screeches and moans course through “Fruitvale Station” like a mournful Greek chorus).
Because Coogler is in such superb control as an artist, “Fruitvale Station” never succumbs to demonizing or bathetic sensationalism. Coogler is clearly more interested in bearing somber witness than in pointing fingers or wringing hands. Thanks to his sensitive direction, and to Jordan’s bruised, wounded portrayal of a man who can go from gentle to aggressive in the blink of an eye, “Fruitvale Station” isn’t just a great film about a timely subject but a great film, period — a study in character and atmosphere every bit as urgent and expressive as the Italian neo-realists or Cassavetes and Scorsese in their prime.