It happens every Sundance. It starts small -- say, your weekend roommate remarks casually on the ride up to Park City, "Loved the script, curious how the movie turned out." Then you hear the title again from a colleague or new drinking buddy you've made over open-bar beers. "Yeah, I hear that's good." Then, someone you know actually gets into the premiere: "Best thing I've seen, definitely." Finally, at some point, typically later Saturday when you're two bourbons in and five minutes from missing your next screening, a total stranger on the bus preaches with evangelical fervor: "I just saw it, it's amazing!" At the point the title becomes a veritable Greek chorus, words like "Harvey Weinstein" and "late-night bidding war" get thrown around and there's a line an hour and a half before the press screening. That's when you know you've stumbled upon it -- the Out-of-Nowhere Find. The film at the festival pretty much everyone agrees is worth it. In years past it's been Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, and last year it was Beasts of the Southern Wild.
This year it's Fruitvale. And the question that's really on your mind, presuming you haven't seen it already, I'll just answer straight out. Yes, it's that good. But to leave it at that would be a huge disservice to such a fine film as Fruitvale, an impressive first turn from writer/director Ryan Coogler. Fictionalizing the real-life tragedy of Oscar Grant, whose death on Jan. 1, 2009, provoked riots in Oakland, Coogler takes a neo-neorealist approach in chronicling Oscar's last day on earth, New Year's Eve. But instead of Italian street urchins searching for bicycles, Coogler has cell phone phones filming police brutality. At the core is Michael B. Jordan's artfully subtle yet emotionally vibrant portrayal of Oscar. Jordan's no neophyte -- the depth of his skill is no surprise to The Wire fanatics who remember his scene-stealing in the first season as Wallace, the very embodiment of an urban youth who loses his childhood to drug-dealing. So, it's great to see Jordan maturing impressively into the vast frame of his full potential. In Fruitvale his performance is so smooth, it's water: invisible yet essential, clear and vital. And he's given all the support he needs with the equally gifted Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer.
There's not much in the way of plot twists to outline -- as there shouldn't be. You start off knowing the most dramatic turn, previewed with blocky, digitally obscure cell phone footage at the beginning. But that's not the point. It's the last day of 2008 and Oscar's a 22-year-old father, worrying as any 22-year-old father would about how to pay the rent while toeing the line and atoning for the myriad of familiar fuck-ups that have led him to this point. Basically, it's the well-worn story of an urban youth's struggle that we may think we've moved past in post-Obama America. Of course we haven't, and it's the specificity of Coogler's vision, and the authenticity of the film's execution that demonstrates why. There's drugs, prison, paychecks; but also, family, hope, and an irrepressibly good-natured spirit that can turn a crowded BART train into an impromptu dance floor with only an iPod and a flask. This scene, which you'll recognize when you see it, is case in point. That same one-line description could apply to a million soulless Super Bowl beer commercials. In Coogler's hands you not only believe it, you may be tempted to try it sometime yourself. That's the testament to the film's achievement and skill.
Granted, sometimes there's a collective high from cinema sniffing known as the Festival effect -- and now that Harvey Weinstein has acquired the film many more will likely have the chance to judge for themselves outside the euphoria-inducing clarity of this mountain air. But I have a feeling in a few months, I'll stand by my implicit (and now explicit) reference to The Bicycle Thief. I don't want to build expectations too high, and you always feel bad making a fragile first film stand toe-to-toe with a titan of cinema -- it's too easy to draw unflattering comparisons that press down with the hefty weight, physical and metaphorical, of a million monographs. But once, a long time ago, it was just a film that achieved the sadly-too-rare feat of showing you a world you take for granted with fresh eyes. Regardless of whether it's social commentary, or dramatic finery, a feel-good film, or a feel-bad film, it made you feel -- feel enough to pause a beat as you leave the theater, blink at the painfully bright afternoon sun and take a second look at the reality all around you, whatever it may be. In that sense, Fruitvale is very much like The Bicycle Thief.