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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Knight at the Movies: Fruitvale Station; Girl Most Likely
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2013-07-24

This article shared 4730 times since Wed Jul 24, 2013
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In light of the not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, it's not hard to see why audiences have embraced Fruitvale Station, the fact-based story of the last day in the life of 22 year-old Oscar Grant, yet another young African American male killed amidst tragic circumstances. Critics have also heavily praised the film, the feature debut of 27-year-old Ryan Coogler. And the movie certainly has its share of compelling moments—especially as it heads into the last sequences surrounding Grant's death. But it's also more than a tad manipulative that shading could have helped alleviate.

Early in the morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, Grant and his girlfriend Sophina were heading back to their Oakland home on the BART train after celebrating New Year's Eve with friends in San Francisco. After an altercation on the packed train, two white transit officers detained Grant and several of his friends on the platform of the Fruitvale stop. As recorded by cellphones and video cameras of the train's passengers, Grant was shot in the back by one of the officers, Johannes Mehserle, and died later that day from his wounds. Mehserle's claim that in the midst of the escalating situation he thought he was reaching for his Taser instead of his gun was accepted in court and he received only a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter—a verdict that, not surprisingly, sparked outrage and protests.

Coogler's film (which he also wrote) begins with the actual cellphone footage of Grant being shot and then flashes back to show his final day. Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan in a career-defining performance) rises with a troubling premonition but his worries are soon displaced by the need to again convince the gorgeous Sophina (the luminous Melonie Diaz) that a recent incident of infidelity was an anomaly. But Sophina isn't so sure Oscar can be trusted and neither does Oscar's mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer, Oscar winner for The Help who also produced Fruitvale, along with Forrest Whitaker).

There are reasons for this—Oscar has had a couple of stints in jail and his road to recovery and his relationship with Sophina and his mother has been shaky. He's a bit of a hothead and is still lying to Sophina—about losing his job and the fact that he's resorted to selling pot to make ends meet. Although Oscar keeps making mistakes he wants to turn his life around,and his relationship with his infant daughter is solid.

For a while Coogler has kept the manipulation mostly in check (an incident with a dog hit by a car which Oscar witnesses being a major exception) but with the scene where Oscar picks up his daughter from day care, the balance unnecessarily tips. From that point, every goodbye, every conversation—no matter how benign—is weighed with the knowledge that it will be Oscar's last and Coogler can't resist stressing this. By the time the young couple head out for their New Year's Eve celebration there's almost a sense of the lamb going to the slaughter.

Coogler redeems his film with the actual incident that begins on the train ride home from an evening of fun and fireworks in San Francisco. Oscar's friends come on to two young women, who promptly kiss and cuddle, making their preferences clear. The other passengers are loudly supportive of the women but in the next moment Oscar is spotted by a hated fellow ex-con and things quickly escalate, leading to their horrendous conclusion.

Flawed though it is by overstating the obvious, Fruitvale Station is also sensitively acted and well-intentioned—and has the bonus of offering a thought-provoking alternative to the mammoth superhero blockbuster (take your pick) playing next door.

Based on the savage reviews and no doubt less-than-stellar box office for Girl Most Likely—SNL alumna Kristeen Wiig's follow-up to the massively successful Bridesmaids—there's apparently not much room in the hearts of moviegoers for a gentle, female-driven comedy. With its plethora of whacked-out, eccentric characters and sometimes hard-to-believe situations, some of the negative criticism is admittedly warranted.

And yeah, the movie—written by Michelle Morgan and helmed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (HBO's Cinema Verite and American Splendor)—does have its sitcomish roots. But it also provides lots of laughs and surrounds Wiig with a great supporting cast for her to underact with—including Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Glee's Darren Criss, Bob Balaban and stage actor Christopher Fitzgerald. What it skips on—and here I'm going to sound as prudish as Grandma Moses—is foul language (not one F-bomb is spewed), crude situations (mostly) and vulgarity, hence the movie's gentle spirit (in itself, a reason to recommend it).

The story follows Wiig as Imogene, a girl from the trashy side of the tracks in New Jersey who has always dreamed of a big career in Manhattan as a renowned playwright. After initial promise, Imogene's once-potential career is floundering, she's been fired, her snooty boyfriend has moved on and her snobbish gal pals are doing their best to ditch her. Imogene stages a phony suicide attempt and wakes up in the psych ward with only one option—returning home to Jersey in the custody of her sexed-up, gambling-addicted mother (Bening). Once there, Imogene finds that mom has rented out her room to a wannabe singer (Criss), her brother, who runs a crab shack on the boardwalk is still obsessed with his odd aquatic/science experiments, and that mother has taken a new lover—a purported CIA agent named George Bouche (Dillon). The scene is set for a broad class-conscious comedy with a lot of sight gags and droll one-liners from Wiig and company.

Subtle it ain't, and it's easy to see that Wiig is going to need to expand her underplaying shtick to keep the attention of movie audiences but Girl Most Likely is also a lot more entertaining than the majority of its critical raspberries would suggest.


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