"Fruitvale Station," the astonishing directorial debut of 27-year-old Ryan Coogler, arrives in Washington with considerable wind at its back: Not only did this somber, meticulously constructed urban drama win big awards at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, but its story — about an unarmed young man who was shot and killed in Oakland in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009 — has uncannily intersected with last weekend's verdict regarding the death of Trayvon Martin.
The cable crawl-ready provenance of "Fruitvale Station" makes it a topical film, no doubt. But what makes it a must-see is its timelessness: Coogler, who began writing the script as a film student at USC, brings not just classical aesthetic sensibilities to the tale of Oscar Grant, but an unerring ethical stance, as well. In this absorbing, finally devastating portrait of a 22-year-old man struggling with a troubled past and cut down before he could build a future, Coogler never lets emotion be overpowered by emotionalism: In naturalistic and unforced strokes, he allows Grant to exist as a complex, even contradictory human being, inviting the audience simply to sit with his life, his loss and what they both meant.
"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 only takes 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 being 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 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.
"Let's keep him lifted up, y'all," Grant's mother urges those praying around Oscar during his final moments. "Fruitvale Station" does just that, in the most metaphysical sense. And we're all elevated in the process.
Four stars. R. Contains some violence, profanity throughout and some drug use. 84 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.