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Every year, it seems, one independent movie breaks out from the Sundance Film Festival in January and manages to make a splash during awards season. Last year it was Beasts of the Southern Wild. In 2010, it was Winter’s Bone. This year that movie is Fruitvale Station.
The movie, which opens this week in selected cities, already has won accolades and has garnered near unanimous critical approval. If this movie follows the track record of those other breakouts, it should do quite well come awards season.
Fruitvale Station centers on Oscar Grant, the African-American youth who was fatally shot in the back by Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle in front of dozens of horrified onlookers. The movie opens with actual footage of the incident taken from a cell phone. The tragedy quickly became a flashpoint of racial tension, resulting in riots, protests and Mehserle – who claimed that he thought he was reaching for a Taser instead of his pistol – serving 11 months in prison.
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The movie, 27-year-old writer/director Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, reconstructs Grant’s final hours, as he tries to get back in the good graces of his girlfriend, with whom he hasn’t been 100 percent faithful, and as he struggles to get his life back on track even though he has recently been fired from his job at an upscale grocery store. In short, Coogler paints a portrait of a 22-year-old guy just trying to get by, and manages to do so in a manner that is suspenseful, sad, and deeply moving.
Though Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer (as Grant’s mother) and Melonie Diaz (as Grant’s girlfriend Sophina) deliver nuanced, powerful performances, Fruitvale belongs to Michael B. Jordan who plays Grant. He is in just about every frame of the movie and manages to capture the longing and the terrific frustration of a youth with a checkered past struggling to make good. This is a performance that will likely make Jordan a star and possibly an Oscar nominee.
Since its festival premiere in January, Fruitvale has won an impressive array of awards. It pulled off the rare feat of winning both the Grand Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. The last movie to do that was Precious back in 2009. The movie also won the Prix de l’avenir in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes. Last year’s indie darling The Beasts of the Southern Wild also did quite well at Cannes.
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Both Precious and Beasts ended up with multiple Oscar nominations including for best actress, best director and best picture.
Though these three movies are miles apart both tonally and stylistically, they have some striking similarities. All three are audacious, moving looks at slices of the African-American experience; all three are directed by previously unknown directors and all three feature powerhouse performances at the center of the films.
The Weinstein Company, which snapped up the rights in Park City, is clearly hoping for similar success for Fruitvale when the Oscar nominations are announced next January.
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