"Fruitvale Station" embraces the life and remembers the death of Oscar Grant III by dramatizing the final day in the life of the East Bay resident whose fatal shooting by BART police shocked the region and made international headlines after it occurred on New Year's Day in 2009.
Written and directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler, this overly sunny but humanity-rich drama is one of the most moving films of the summer.
Coogler places a human face on Grant (Michael B. Jordan) by presenting his final hours via a ripple of realistically toned encounters that underscore his essential goodness while hinting at the demons that threaten it.
On Dec. 31, 2008, Grant is a 22-year-old ex-con with a dangerous temper but an irresistible charm and a desire to better his life in the new year. He wants to stop selling drugs and hopes to get back the grocery job from which he was fired. He has stopped cheating on his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal).
Events both routine and random occur, and some prove pivotal. Grant visits his mother (Octavia Spencer) on her birthday. Grant helps a shopper decide which kind of fish to fry. A flashback reveals a prison nemesis.
At night, Grant rides BART into San Francisco with Sophina and friends to watch the fireworks. On the homebound train, an altercation leads to a confrontation with officers at Fruitvale station. We know the rest.
For sure, what happened to Oscar Grant, who was unarmed when shot, was senseless and appalling. The film doesn't need to hike the sympathy factor by overstating Grant's bright spots.
But that sometimes happens, and this makes Grant less compelling in his struggle. Multiple scenes that feature Grant cutely interacting with his adorable little girl feel particularly manipulative in this regard.
But mostly, director Coogler and actor Jordan (seen on TV's "Friday Night Lights") deliver not only essential charisma but equally crucial nuance. They create an impressive mix of tragic melodrama, personal journey and urban reality, all distinguished by an immensely affecting humanity.
Scenes of a neighborhood patrolled by police cars convey the experience of living among authorities who view all young black men in gritty neighborhoods suspiciously.
More brightly, Coogler, who comes from the Bay Area, manages to colorfully capture the local vibe when a variegated trainful of passengers celebrates the stroke of midnight.
Coogler's depiction of the Fruitvale shooting and the surrounding chaos is fittingly horrifying. A final scene, set at Highland Hospital, where Grant's mother, powerfully played by Spencer, learns of her loss seals the movie's status as a heartbreaker.
Coogler doesn't dramatize the protests and riots that followed Grant's death, or the trial of the officer involved, who, pre-credit titles remind us, served less than a year in prison.
He's clearly interested in the life and spirit of Oscar Grant, and in delivering that, he gives us something unforgettable.