Fruitvale Station

This year’s Sundance award-sponge celebrates the life and laments the awful death of Oscar Grant on an Oakland BART platform in the fateful first moments of 2009. In his feature debut, Oakland-based writer-director Ryan Coogler has brought off a stirring and empathetic grief ritual, but not a great film. The eventual martyr Grant, played by Michael B. Jordan, spends his last day alive exuding generosity, striving for decency, and soaking up our pity. He goes about the not-very-dramatic business of affording his mother (Octavia Spencer), his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), and his young daughter (Ariana Neal) many opportunities to forgive him for letting them down before. But as an unmarried black father who’s done some time and recently lost a low-wage job, is he doomed to become a target? Although it deserves credit for portraying Grant as a person with faults, the film seems timid when addressing them, particularly the occasional sudden swells of rage which could be survival-instinct fronting or a tragic flaw. By contrast, his goodness is overstressed, saddling Jordan with insufficient context, awkward dialogue, and contrived tension-inflating tricks. Coogler even resorts to the oldest audience-manipulation tool in the book, an injured dog. Neither star charisma nor social relevance can make up for crude storytelling, but it’s embittering to beat a drum for a more tough-minded approach. This is still the true story of a defenseless young black man shot dead, in the back, by an out-of-control white cop. Compassionate enough even to allow Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle, a name change and a brief human moment of shocked regret, Coogler has taken the high road. With Fruitvale Station rolling into theaters just as George Zimmerman stands trial for killing Trayvon Martin, it’s hard to know where that road will lead.