08/07/2013 05:16 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2013


As if our hearts weren't already broken, along comes Fruitvale Station, the story of a young African-American man and the tragedy that befell him on a Bay Area subway platform when events came together in a cursed rush in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009.

The film opens, after a fleeting glimpse of the nightmare to come, with a scene we've seen before: A young woman is resisting the amorous advances of a young man whose cheating calls into question whether he is capable of redemption, worthy of forgiveness. Yet as the story unfolds -- traveling the last day of Oscar Grant III -- we see that their relationship and Oscar himself are not so easily categorized. The same person we watch in all-too-familiar player mode is also an adoring father to a spirited little girl, devoted son to a strict, devout mother and lovingly affectionate boyfriend to his baby mama.

As we go through a typical day in Oscar's life that will ultimately prove anything but typical, Fruitvale Station gathers a cumulative power, working on the viewer with steady understated efficiency. Because we know what happens to the real-life person at its center, the film is a balancing act of suspense and terror and uncontainable emotion, at times heartening -- as we root for the warm, charismatic young man to win his battle with the demons and roadblocks that plague him from without and within -- at times almost unbearably sad. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, Grant's peer in age and background who saw himself in the events that transpired that terrible day and was compelled to address them in this remarkably assured debut, captures the magic act young African-American men are sometimes driven to perform, shifting between different personas depending on whether addressing friends or strangers, women or men, white people in authority or other African-American "youth."

It isn't clear how closely the film hews to actual events -- it feels truer than most biopics -- or how conscious the filmmaker was of its portrayal of women, who contribute disproportionately to its central tragedy. The mother who talks Oscar into taking public transportation rather than driving, concerned for his safety; the girlfriend determined to go into "the city" to party when Oscar would gladly have stayed in; the stranger who calls out his name in gratitude, bringing on the cataclysmic moment upon which everything subsequently turns; the diminutive cop whose perceived vulnerability leads one of Oscar's buddies to relentlessly come on to her and other police to retaliate in her "defense" -- these coincidences aren't underlined and don't seem part of any agenda, but their connection begs to be examined.

Meanwhile, we watch a radiant little girl interact with her father and know the loss will be far more devastating than any platitudes can convey. We see a sweet, cruelly aborted communion between man and stray dog that is no less affecting for being overtly symbolic. Horrible things happen all the time, unexpectedly and for no reason whatsoever; can any of us say otherwise?

Some of Fruitvale's power lies in the deceptive simplicity of its storytelling and its pitch-pefect casting, but there's also an intimacy in the film that insinuates itself into our subconscious. The emotional freight of its story, its leading character's fate, imbues the picture with a painful immediacy and tension and a strange suspense -- strange because we know the outcome even as we pray it won't happen. We watch the interplay of masculine posturing and panic across cultural divides escalate, shockingly yet somehow unsurprisingly, to misunderstanding and violence. We recognize the games that draw a veil between women and men, the timeworn animosity between police and African-American men, how a vortex of worst-case scenarios, a brutal coming together of time and place and misperception and high emotion and bad luck, can erupt in catastrophe.

What makes Fruitvale so extraordinary is how it works its particular alchemy on the audience; something happens to the viewer as we sit passively absorbing scene after scene. In holding a mirror up to the experiences of one particular young man at one particular moment in one particular city, somehow Coogler has inserted us into the story. It feels like we are going through what its characters are experiencing; we're not watching a man we've heard about endure something we've read of; we're there with him. Not bystanders to the tragedy the film portrays but thick in the middle of it -- and powerless to stop it.

Like the best documentaries, Fruitvale portrays its truths without fanfare. The director doesn't slight the meaning of the real Oscar Grant's terrible place in American history, doesn't glance over the more complicated nuances and undertones present in his story. But Coogler seems to have as his purest goal to transmit what it feels like to know Oscar, and love him. The film casts us as his intimates, a rising sea of witnesses who learn the quiet, indelible lesson of what it feels like to lose him. Fruitvale's crowning achievement may be that we leave it feeling what it is to have to go on living without him.