Bay Area audiences may feel they need no introduction to Oscar Grant III when it comes to "Fruitvale Station," a based-on-a-true-story film about the young local's last hours on Earth. But Bay Area-bred writer-director Ryan Coogler feels it's precisely the point that we all do need to get to know the man -- as more than a victim frozen in time.
The film begins with the infamous cellphone video of Grant's ignominious end in the titular BART station, pointing up that this is what we have seen and mostly know of Grant. What follows, in docudramatic form, strives to round out our knowledge of this ordinary 22-year-old American male, to return this symbol to his humanity as a son, a grandson, a boyfriend, a father. "Fruitvale Station" tallies the toll of what was lost on New Year's Day 2009.
Star-in-the-making Michael B. Jordan ("The Wire," "Friday Night Lights") ably walks a mile in Grant's shoes, conspiring with Coogler to show many facets of their subject. With 4-year-old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), and assorted family elders, Oscar radiates love and charm, but in unguarded moments, he reveals his anxiety about making ends meet without getting caught in a parole violation and reliving his nightmare of prison-bound separation from loved ones.
In a flashback to San Quentin (on New Year's Eve day of 2007), Coogler, Jordan and Octavia Spencer (splendid as Grant's mom, Wanda) establish emotional stakes. In what seems at the time, ironically, to be the worst-case scenario, Oscar flashes a volatile temper (which he hasn't entirely conquered in the present) as well as little-boy-lost remorse toward a mother achingly forcing herself to "tough love" her son.
Here and in the stomach-churning climax, "Fruitvale Station" functions on a gut level. More often, though, it is deliberately mundane. Oscar helps a market customer to prepare for a Southern fish fry. Oscar buys a birthday card for his mother, and looks forward to a dinner of Grandma Bonnie's gumbo. Oscar parries and thrusts in the bedroom, as he and Sophina fret together and make love together.
Coogler isn't after much more than what naturally comes with his approach: a memorial in dramatic prose, an occasion for cathartic outrage and empathetic grief. And the film only notably stumbles when Coogler strains for clumsy symbolism (Oscar befriends a doomed stray dog -- hoo boy) and intimations of fate (look how close Oscar came to making it after all!). Social-justice issues are inherent in Grant's story, but "Fruitvale Station," for better and worse, prefers pure emotional appeal.