Occasionally Cannes will follow the trend set by Sundance, and cherry-pick a couple of the American festival’s biggest successes to add to its own competitions. Last year the exceptional Beasts Of The Southern Wild followed that path, and this year, the pleasure goes to Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, which picked up a lot of heat at Sundance, and which will benefit from the critical reception from this screening in Cannes, if the early responses are anything to go by, when it gets a release.
Projects like this deserve the attention that can come from successful associations with grand old institutes like Cannes, and it’s a distinct pleasure to see this kind of film in competition alongside some major established talents.
That said, there are a number of big names associated with Fruitvale Station – Chad Michael Murray will be familiar for his TV work (predominantly in One Tree Hill) and should be applauded for not taking a teen romance leading man role instead of this very meagre, but very important role, while Michael Jordan was one of the best parts of Chronicle and Kevin Durand (in another small role) and Octavia Spencer are relative veterans.
Fruitvale Station is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a Bay Area resident who was shot and killed by police at the Fruitvale BART station in an astonishing display of over-zealous force. The killer cop, who was captured on mobiles in the act, and claimed he thought he was discharging his taser, was eventually jailed, but Grant wasn’t lucky enough to escape with his life, dying the next morning. His death led to protests, but his life wasn’t explored in such depth as Ryan Coogler’s confident script does.
The true story element adds a poignant hammer blow to what is an arresting and engaging life story of a man seeking to get his life together. Coogler uses the event as point zero, before flipping back twelve hours to explore Grant’s (Jordan) final day, and the script is a remarkably clever one, particularly for a newcomer. Jordan’s Grant is remarkably sympathetic, and his story develops in a way that adds an awful note to the opening scene, as the arc creeps slowly and painfully towards the final, fatal moment.
There isn’t any preaching here: Coogler instead chooses to reveal a whole picture, offering a humanist portrait of Grant that doesn’t ignore the more difficult aspects (Grant was hardly an angel,) while mourning his lack of available tools to better himself as much as his death.
There are rather insistent creative choices, like the text message mechanic that superimposes them on the screen, and some of the narrative is a little repetitive to drive home the message, but all of the flaws feel like the unrestrained enthusiasm of a new talent finding his way through creation.
Jordan is exceptional as Grant, and should gain a lot of attention for it – particularly if he walks away with the best actor gong at the end of affairs – and his performance is helped by Coogler’s refusal to present him as a martyr for the many causes real life groups attempted to. The contrast between truth and media presentation is a pertinent point.
It’s a fantastic debut, and an excellent film all round: provocative, emotionally devastating at times, and underpinned by some exceptional performances, particularly by Jordan and on-screen mother Octavia Spencer.
It deserves the added attention that a positive response from the Cannes crowd should garner.
This article was first posted on May 16, 2013