The tragedy of "Fruitvale Station" sneaks up on you, even though you always know and dread where the story is heading.
Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, a graduate of California State University, Sacramento, "Fruitvale" follows the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the unarmed 22-year-old man fatally shot by a BART police officer in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009.
Grant was shot after BART police, responding to reports of a fight, pulled Grant and his friends off a train at Oakland's Fruitvale station.
Onlookers' cellphone camera footage from the scene quickly reached television and the Internet, sparking outrage and protests in the Bay Area.
"Fruitvale Station's" climax is a given, lending this thoughtful, humanistic film a base level of sadness. But the movie does not just build incrementally toward that climax. It renders Oscar's (Michael B. Jordan) final hours vivid, vibrant and full of the natural hopefulness of youth, engaging viewers from moment to moment.
Winner of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury and Audience awards, "Fruitvale" so clearly defines Oscar's circumstances and motivations that when the inevitable happens, the effect is stunning. It feels far too sudden, even though, again, we know what's coming.
First-time feature director Coogler's naturalistic approach he used authentic locations including the Fruitvale BART station, and mostly eschewed a musical score apart from ominous bass notes gives audiences a fly-on-the-wall proximity to the victories and setbacks within Grant's day.
Oscar wakes up on Dec. 31, 2008, with the stakes already high. He's been to prison on a drug conviction, and more recently, has been caught cheating by his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and lost his job at a supermarket for repeated tardiness.
But he wants to do better. He spends parts of New Year's Eve day with his 4-year-old daughter, (Ariana Neal), and with her mother, Sophina, who, it's clear, will leave him before she becomes long-suffering. He also shops for his mother's (Octavia Spencer) birthday dinner later that night.
Change seems possible, because tomorrow will bring a new year, and because Oscar is played by Jordan, who exudes goodness here just as he did as quarterback Vince on "Friday Night Lights" and as the doomed young drug dealer Wallace on "The Wire."
Jordan gives his character a foundation of friendliness, enhanced by an eagerness to please. The Oscar of "Fruitvale Station" never met a stranger, easily striking up conversations with people he just met. He waves off his mother's offers to pay him back for the groceries for her party. It's her birthday, he says, and she shouldn't pay for anything.
But Oscar's sunniness dissipates when challenged. Jordan gives his character an undercurrent of frustration that suggests one of his New Year's wishes is that people would get off his back, because he is trying.
When Sophina brings up his cheating, Oscar becomes irritated. He's not cheating on her now. Why can't she get over it?
When his boss at the market informs him he has been fired, he reacts with anger and desperation. Without the job, he cannot help support his family, and might rely on drug dealing again.
He's at that point in young adulthood where he has yet to accept the full repercussions of his own behavior. A part of him still wants to blame others for not giving him enough breaks.
But he's also clearly progressing toward maturity, as evidenced by warm exchanges between Jordan and young actress Neal, who plays Oscar's daughter. The little girl obviously means the world to Oscar.
The father-daughter bond helps explain why Sophina has stayed with Oscar, not the most reliable partner. Diaz and Jordan share a clear chemistry, but Diaz invests Sophina with a grit that suggests Oscar is on final notice.
Jordan and Academy Award winner Spencer ("The Help") create a believable mother-son relationship, but some of their moments together come across as stiff. Spencer might be playing the mother as slightly wary (a prison-visit flashback shows relations once were strained), but it's unclear.
While Coogler researched the Grant case thoroughly before writing his script, "Fruitvale" is a dramatization of Grant's last day, and includes at least one composite character. A scene that heavily foreshadows Oscar's death also appears a product of poetic license. Its symbolism plays as heavy-handed in a film that otherwise unfolds naturally.
Coogler grew up in the East Bay and presents a more authentic Bay Area than we usually see in movies. "Fruitvale's" Bay Area is the one experienced by people who are neither wealthy nor tourists. Instead of idyllic Golden Gate Bridge shots, Coogler gives us passing shots of unremarkable buildings lining nondescript boulevards.
But the visuals also suggest the place is what you make it. A scene in which Oscar looks out over the bay shows the natural beauty available not far from Oscar's working-class neighborhood. Oscar's grandmother's lovely home suggests Oscar's family's fortunes like those within most extended families have been mixed.
"Fruitvale Station's" arrival in theaters corresponds with the outcry over the Trayvon Martin case, to which the Grant case carries some parallels. (There were more Bay Area protests after the BART officer who shot Grant, Johannes Mehserle, received a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.)
But "Fruitvale" did not need added relevancy to be remarkable. It doesn't hook itself to anything but Oscar's story. It tells that story so well that the audience extrapolates from its intimacy a larger worldview one that precludes judging people by they way they look or their past problems.
Maybe that person wants to do better. Or has people in his life rooting for him. Oscar Grant did.
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter: @CarlaMeyerSB.
3 1/2 stars
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Ariana Neal
Director: Ryan Coogler
Rated R (some violence, language throughout and some drug use)