Sundance Review: “Fruitvale”

Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, “Fruitvale,” won the Dramatic Grand Jury prize at Sundance. It’s easy to see why.

Director Ryan Coogler accepting the Grand Jury Prize for “Fruitvale.”

“Fruitvale” is a difficult film to write about for several reasons. I didn’t take any notes on the film, because I was so engrossed in the world and story unfolding before my eyes. But, more than that, it’s a movie of such tremendously raw power that it’s difficult to put into words.

The plot is based upon the life of Oscar, a bay-area man who was senselessly killed by a BART officer on New Years’ Day, 2009. The film opens with the raw video of the killing, taken on a cell phone, and then proceeds to follow Oscar through the last year of his life.

What makes the film so immediately engaging is the character of Oscar himself. He is an incredibly likable yet sympathetic. Yes, he just got out of prison, but he’s trying to get his life back on track, and is deeply in love with his daughter and girlfriend. He’s even a good sibling and son to his supportive mother, wonderfully played by Octavia Spencer. And yet, he’s having a tough time getting a job, and has been selling drugs to make money.

I’m reading through Blake Snyder’s classic book on screenwriting, “Save the Cat.” In the book, he talks about a major element that every good screenplay should have. Early on in the film, the protagonist should have a moment where he/she “saves the cat.” This means that they need to do something that has us rooting for them from the beginning, no matter how flawed other aspects of their character may be. In “Fruitvale,” we get this in several scenes. Oscar attempts to save a dog that has been hit by a car. The dog dies, but we see how much Oscar cared for him. If he cares for a street dog, how much more might he care for the human beings that he comes across in his life? A similar scene occurs when he dumps his bag of weed, which he could have sold for money, into the ocean. It’s an amazing scene because we see that Oscar has changed, that he is now more interested in living with honesty and integrity than he is with making money.

The plot itself is brilliantly constructed. Every moment is thick with irony and foreshadowing. Since we already know Oscar’s fate, the tension comes from seeing him do mundane things that suddenly take on a raw power. In one scene, we see Oscar picking out a birthday card for his mother. We know, deep down, that this will be the last card he ever gives to his mother, but we hope against hope that history will not repeat itself, that, somehow, Oscar will live. We’re invested in the character not only because he is written well, but because our knowledge of what happened to his real-life counterpart adds to our sympathetic feelings.

The film takes some creative risks visually, and I think they all pay off. The main effect occurs whenever Oscar sends a text. We see a pop-up on screen as he selects who he is going to send the message to and the message he sends. This is a great way for us to see what he is saying without having to see something less visually engaging, such as an awkward close-up of the cell phone himself. The director also includes real-life footage of the shooting and the rallies for justice that took place during the aftermath. The director said he didn’t originally intend to put in these live-action bookends at the beginning and end, but in the end he just couldn’t deny their power. One interesting note: footage from the anniversary rally on Jan. 1, 2013 is included at the end of the film. This means that the footage was shot and cut into the film in a matter of weeks. It was a cool reminder of how quickly and hard filmmakers sometimes have to work to get their film into Sundance on time.