This dramatization of the final day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a young black man who was accidentally shot by a transit cop at the titular BART station in Oakland in the early hours of New Year's Day, 2009, certainly has good intentions. Writer/director Coogler, who hails from nearby Richmond, sought to help audiences see Grant as a human being, with virtues and dreams as well as flaws and mistakes, so that he doesn't become just another statistic.
The ploy works – to an extent.
Grant (Michael B. Jordan) does indeed come to life before our eyes, and the tragedy of his senseless death does gain more depth when we're given the time to reflect on the facts of his life: the love he had for his young daughter, his girlfriend, and his family; the attempts he made to make a new start after a couple of unfortunate run-ins with the law (which included a prison term for dealing drugs); the injured dog he tried to save just hours before he lost his own life...
Wait – what injured dog he tried to save?
Herein lies the problem with Fruitvale Station: Coogler employs just a little too much dramatization in his script, from the fictitious scene where Grant heroically attempts to revive that fatally wounded pit bull, to a couple of preposterous plot contrivances during Grant's final hours. (Without giving anything away, let's just say the story finds a way of packing as many key characters into that BART train as it can.)
Coogler seems caught between adhering to factual events and glamming them up to be more Hollywood-friendly. Yes, this is an indie film, but its gritty subject matter is betrayed by a slick, movie-of-the-week approach to the story.
The cast is fine, the direction is solid, and my emotional response was, mostly, successfully manipulated. The person next to me in the theater was bawling her eyes out at the end of the film, so obviously it works on a basic level. But Fruitvale Station tries so hard to make Oscar Grant such a lovable, valuable guy that instead of making me get to know the real man who died that morning, I felt like I only got to know a movie character.