You could hear a pin drop during the first Sundance screening of writer-director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale, an enormously powerful and moving debut feature based on the shooting death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by Oakland transit police in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009. Coogler opens the film–one of the standouts of this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition–with pixilated camera-phone video of the real incident, then flashes back 24 hours to take us through the last day of Grant’s abbreviated life. The result is a richly observed portrait of working-class African-American life and of one man’s flawed but sincere efforts to make things better for himself and his young family. Taken together with another Dramatic Competition highlight, Andrew Donsunmu’s previously discussed Mother of George, Fruitvale also offers further evidence of the American indie black cinema renaissance that has emerged at Sundance over the last few years.
At the time of his death, Grant was trying to go straight after a wayward youth that included drug dealing and two state prison sentences. Coogler smartly doesn’t shy away from showing any of this. Hagiography and agitprop interest him little. Rather, he wants us to see Grant in all his vivid and sometimes contradictory dimensions, and he’s cast an actor, 25-year-old Michael B. Jordan (The Wire), who’s fully up to the challenge.
Jordan’s Oscar is by turns a tough-talking “bruh” full of street bravado, a loving husband and father, and a dutiful son to his hardworking mom (an excellent Octavia Spencer). He is, like so many of us, someone who wears one face to his family, another to his friends, and yet another for the world to see. Coogler, an Oakland native himself, pulls us effortlessly into Grant’s world, and though we know how Fruitvale must end, the journey there is marked by small moments of everyday struggle and joy (a family fish fry, a subway train that erupts into an impromptu dance party). As Coogler noted at the post-screening Q&A, in the wake of the shooting Grant was vilified by some and sanctified by others; Fruitvale‘s quiet triumph is that it gives us Grant the human being.
It’s one of the failings of Sundance–or maybe of modern movie culture in general–that Fruitvale (which sold to The Weinstein Company for a reported $2.5 million) has generated fewer headlines thus far than Escape From Tomorrow, a gimmick movie that has been the talk of the festival (including long feature stories in the New York and Los Angeles Times) for the simple fact that it was clandestinely shot on location inside various Disney theme parks in California and Florida.
Directed by Randy Moore, Escape From Tomorrow isn’t the first festival “buzz” title whose making-of story is considerably more interesting than the movie itself–though it may be the most tedious since the George W. Bush assassination docudrama Death of a President sucked up several days’ worth of oxygen at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. Resembling a cross between a YouTube vacation video and a film student’s overheated Eraserhead homage, the black-and-white Tomorrow carries a certain novelty value for 10 or 15 minutes, as a bickering family’s visit to “the happiest place on earth” takes on increasingly sinister undertones (e.g., the plasticine figures of “It’s a Small World” sport hollowed-out eyes and sadistic grins). After which Moore repeats his half-dozen or so ideas about conformity, the prison of the nuclear family, and the sinister underbelly of the Disney Corporation for another hour and a half. Some have speculated that Disney will go out of its way to make sure Moore’s film is never widely released. I speculate that this goal can be accomplished without Disney lifting a finger.