‘Smaller’ movies like 'Fruitvale Station' (according to Hollywood) leave big impression

Michael B. Jordan stars as Oscar Grant in "Fruitvale Station."


I spent a recent day off going to the movies. Two of them, back to back.

I didn’t get the chance to review them. No advance screenings were available. These were just movies I wanted to see for myself.

And I’m glad I did. Both were winners. Both reminded me what a human-scale story can be on the big screen, at a point when I had sort of overdosed on summer tentpole movies — popcorn fare that’s all about action heroes and digital special effects.

Both of these movies, in my opinion, include Oscar-caliber elements that could legitimately be remembered when nominations come out Jan. 16.

The first, “The Way, Way Back,” is a coming-of-age tale set in an East Coast beach town. The title refers to those old station wagons that had a rear seat in the way, way back that faced backward.

In this seat sits Duncan (Liam James), a glum, shy 14-year-old dragged along on summer vacation with his recently divorced mom, Pam (Toni Colette); her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell); and the boyfriend’s snippy diva daughter. They’re going to Trent’s summer beach house.

Duncan can’t stand Trent, not only because he told Duncan that on a scale of 1 to 10 he was a 3, but also because of how badly Trent treats his mom.

To escape them all, Duncan cruises the local water park, run by a free spirit named Owen (Sam Rockwell, the movie’s best bet for an Oscar nod). Owen takes the kid under his wing, gives him a job (which Duncan keeps a secret) and cheers him up, becoming something of a mentor.

I was especially intrigued to see this movie because it’s written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote “The Descendants” with Alexander Payne. All three won a screenwriting Oscar for that movie. Faxon and Rash also step in front of the camera, playing characters (and I do mean characters) who work at the water park.

The movie is funny, poignant and true in ways similar to an Alexander Payne dramedy. It’s full of little comedic gems — Allison Janney as a lush neighbor whose every thought drops onto her tongue like a gumball, for example.

And while it’s largely predictable, it’s also quite moving in serious moments, such as when Duncan is finally forced to speak up for a mother too afraid to speak for herself. I was struck by how much worse the adults behaved than the teens in this story.

The ending gets another moment right, one that I didn’t expect and that felt real.

It’s not a groundbreaking film. But the underdog story, the humor, some great character acting and clever writing all worked for me.

It was quite a leap in one afternoon from the bittersweet nostalgia of “The Way, Way Back” to “Fruitvale Station.”

This first feature from writer-director Ryan Coogler depicts the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was shot dead by a transit police officer on a BART station platform in Oakland, Calif., in the first minutes of 2009.

Michael B. Jordan (the quarterback from television’s “Friday Night Lights”) gives a terrific performance as Grant, and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) is also excellent as his mother.

The movie paints a three-dimensional picture of a flawed man who is struggling to get his act together. He’s sold drugs. He’s done time. He’s cheated on the mother of his child. He’s lost his job for no better reason than careless irresponsibility.

He’s not a hero. He’s just a guy. But his flaws make him relatable, and his struggles make him somebody you want to root for. He has family and friends who love him, flaws and all. He has hope and possibility.

All of which makes the ending to this story more devastating — a stupid escalation of trash talk, racial conflict and abuse of power. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, it’s another piece of evidence that racial injustice is not only in our nation’s past.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to predict that “Fruitvale Station,” which won the Sundance jury prize and audience award plus an award at Cannes, could be remembered on Academy Award night March 2.

I’ve also been hearing that “20 Feet From Stardom,” a documentary about backup singers, and “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s investigation into her family history, could become best-documentary nominees. Both had runs at Film Streams.

Among other early Oscar possibilities: the screenplay for “Before Midnight,” the third movie in Richard Linklater’s relationship trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

Matthew McConaughey is having a banner year, with his performances in “Mud” and the upcoming “Dallas Buyers Club” generating award buzz. Talk is also embracing the lead-actress performances of past Oscar winners Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s latest, “Blue Jasmine”; Emma Thompson in “Saving Mr. Banks,” as the author of “Mary Poppins” (opens Dec. 13); Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” a sci-fi tale about an astronaut lost in space (opens Oct. 4); and Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County,” a Pulitzer-winning tale of family dysfunction opening Christmas Day.

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