General audiences tend to hear about the year’s best indies in fall or winter, if they hear of them at all. These films’ releases aren’t quite as calculated as the major Oscar contenders, which tend to open in November or December, sometimes a few weeks earlier. Indies can roll out in the less cluttered summer months, where they don’t have to compete with studio prestige dramas; they serve as counter-programming to the mindless superhero fare that’s distracting the rest of the moviegoing public. If they’re lucky, these movies gain traction with lengthy releases in arthouse theaters, maybe adding screens as the weeks roll on, and may even get some love come Oscar time — think Winter’s Bone or Beasts Of The Southern Wild.
But for those who keep up, these movies are on the radar several months prior to the moment when the general public can see them, thanks to film festivals. Two of this year’s most promising indie titles are gaining steam now but have been praised for months now thanks to auspicious debuts at fests earlier this year. Fruitvale Station is probably the most serious Oscar contender to see a release thus far in 2013, as foretold by its buzz at Sundance, while Short Term 12 is less likely to go for the gold — but no less worthy — after a splashy premiere at South By Southwest. Both films took home both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award at their respective fests, meaning they hit the sweet spot across the board with critics and audiences alike. It’s a good sign that both have miles to go yet, in terms of wider audiences discovering them.
I know it’s still summer, and there are a lot of noisy, bright, metallic, indestructible objects clanging in your face trying to rip that $13 out of your pocket, but keep an eye on these quieter titles, too. Because they’re worth your attention.
Fruitvale Station begins with some real-life footage shot on a cell phone. It’s hard to watch. But in case you somehow walked into it without knowing what kind of story you’re in for, it becomes clear right away that there’s no happy ending here. On December 31, 2008, Oscar Grant went about his day — taking his daughter to and from school, picking up fish for his mom’s birthday party, hooking a buddy up with some weed, and heading out for a night on the town to celebrate the coming of a New Year that he’d only barely see. Most of what is depicted in Fruitvale Station is quite ordinary indeed, to the extent that the film might be interminably boring if it weren’t for the sense of dread that extends through its brief running time. It’s a well-made movie, but would Oscar’s actions on that last day of his life be compelling if not for the poignancy that we’re seeing him do it all for the very last time?
As portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in Ryan Coogler’s film, Oscar Grant is no saint. He loses his job after being late to work one too many times, he’s a bit hot-headed, he has cheated on his girlfriend, and he’s considering getting back into selling weed in order to make ends meet. In particular, a flashback to his stint in prison shows that he has the ability to lose his temper in a big way. Still, it’s clear that Oscar Grant has good intentions. He loves his friends and family. He’s doing his best to stay out of trouble. He’s a good father. He probably represents more people out there in the world than not, and he certainly isn’t someone that the streets of Oakland are safer without. But he’s black and wears baggy clothing, so the police don’t necessarily see it that way.
Fruitvale Station is a harrowing film to sit through, more harrowing even than other films about arguably more troubling situations. I’ve watched films like Schindler’s List and United 93 depicting unimaginably horrifying scenarios, things you can scarcely imagine experiencing. While these films strike a powerful and troubling emotional chord, the real-life shooting of Oscar Grant by a police officer is disturbing in a different way because, in this day and age, it’s actually not that hard to imagine something like this happening to you — particularly if you’re a young black male, but even if you’re not. It’s easy to imagine a police officer or two abusing their power and shooting just about anybody “by mistake,” even if Fruitvale Station makes a larger point about the limited prospects for a certain class of African-American males. The echoes of Trayvon Martin are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean this story is timely, because it has repeated itself over and over for decades.
Despite the politically-charged subject matter, however, Fruitvale Station is far from an angry movie, or even an incendiary one. It is content to present the facts of Oscar’s final day at face value and let the tragedy speak for itself. There’s a cloud of doom hanging over the film, but watching it is not a particularly dour experience, even if it is unnerving. Oscar is an engaging character, and though he meets an unfair and unnecessary end, the point of the movie seems to be less about inciting a debate over the details of his death and more about celebrating his life — what little time we get to spend with him. A different approach to this story might also have given us some time with the cop (played, curiously, by Chad Michael Murray) who ends up killing Oscar. This cop allegedly mistook his gun for his taser, which landed him in prison. While that might be an interesting angle to explore, Fruitvale Station is probably wise to keep its scope as small as possible. It’s about one man’s life, so it’s seen through one man’s eyes.
Perhaps most impressive of all, there’s genuine love found in Oscar’s relationships in this movie — particularly with the three primary females in his life: his proud mother (Octavia Spencer), not afraid to play the tough love card when need be; his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who gives him shit for his poor choices but loves him anyway; and his cutie of a daughter, who we know will spend most of her life without a father. All of these relationships feel lived-in, particularly Oscar and Sophina’s; very little in Fruitvale Station feels staged or calculated, which is rare for a film dealing with the death of a real-life individual. Fruitvale Station is emotionally wrenching, particularly in its final scenes depicting the suspense and then grief surrounding Oscar’s fate. But ultimately, somehow, what lingers is a halo of positivity — Oscar Grant’s death was sad and meaningless, but his life wasn’t. The tender relationships he had with his friends and family outweigh the stupid moment of violence that ended them. It’s similar to the way we remember a loved one of our own.
Overall, Fruitvale Station is a remarkable feature debut from Oakland-born 27-year-old USC alum Ryan Coogler, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. (Oscar Grant may not be the only “Oscar” associated with this film come February, if you catch my drift.) There are one or two moments that feel self-conscious, such as when Oscar’s mother suggests he take a BART train out to San Francisco because it’s safer — and later breaks down over the suggestion that inadvertently cut her son’s life short. But by and large, Fruitvale Station is absent any contrivances. It’s impressive mainly for just how unambitious it is, choosing to tell a small, day-long story within one that could have been much larger and messier. Many young filmmakers bite off more than they can chew in a debut, but Coogler gets it just right.
Much of the same praise can be heaped onto Short Term 12, a feature from another young filmmaker, Destin Daniel Cretton. While not exactly a true story, it is based on the filmmaker’s real-life experience working with at-risk teenagers, and every character in it rings true in every scene.
The protagonist is Grace (Brie Larson), a young woman who at first seems positively heroic in the way she interacts with her many-faceted charges, each of whom is fucked up in a unique way, each of whom needs a very particular kind of special attention. There’s the oft-shirtless boy who frequently makes a dash for it and tries to escape the facility, but otherwise spends all his time sulking in bed; the moody 17-year-old who is about to age out of the program and is acting out to cover his gnawing fears of facing the world as an angry black man on his own; and the newest, a cutter named Jayden who declares that she doesn’t like short-term relationships and thus intends to not make any friends in her brief stay here.
As with almost any material dealing with troubled teenagers, Short Term 12 could be horribly maudlin if handled the wrong way. It’s hard to avoid the standard cliches — on paper, the teen characters sound pretty trite and typical. But as portrayed in the film by a uniformly talented cast, each of them has enough shading and complexity to get us wholly wrapped up in their individual storylines. We recognize what a rough hand they’ve been dealt and wonder if anyone of them will be able to escape and transcend it. (It’s reminiscent of Oscar Grant’s limited options in Fruitvale Station.) Cretton cares deeply about these characters; thus, so do we.
But what makes Short Term 12 a shade more interesting is the focus it places on the staff, who, under a layer of competence and professionalism at their jobs, are just as broken as the foster kids. Grace is still struggling with her past as she learns that she’s pregnant, which may determine whether or not she keeps the baby; her devoted boyfriend Mason, who works alongside her, was raised by loving foster parents, without whom he would’ve turned out entirely differently. It takes a special kind of person to work with and understand the difficult teen personalities found at Short Term 12; Grace and Mason are excellent at their jobs, yet Grace may not have matured past her own childhood traumas enough to keep a cool head on one particularly taxing day at the office. Ultimately, she’s just as much “at risk” as the kids she’s meant to be taking care of.
Short Term 12 is well-written, well-acted, and well-directed across the board. It’s a small movie and feels like one, but it hits some big emotions along the way. There are a handful of standout scenes that cut to the core of these characters, whether its Marcus rapping about his mother beating him or Jayden telling a story about a shark befriending an octopus with shocking insinuations. Again, this all sounds kinda sappy on paper, but it works like dynamite in the film because you’ve come to care about these kids. They’re not just “types” from the Fucked Up Teen Character Handbook as in so many movies. Like Grace, Short Term 12 knows that each one of these cases is unique.
Toward the third act, Grace’s unraveling may accelerate a bit too quickly to be fully believed, and perhaps the parallels between her character and Jayden end up being a tad too convenient as they rumble down the road toward recovery. These are minor blips in an otherwise open and honest movie, one that, like Fruitvale Station, doesn’t have an ounce of cynicism to be found in it. Both films deal with difficult subject matter in ways that is ultimately life-affirming; not in a treacly bullshit way, but in a way that acknowledges the darkness while still leaning toward the light. They’re two of the year’s best movies thus far.