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Can ‘Fruitvale Station’ Match ‘Beasts’ at Oscar Noms?

Last year's Sundance champ earned four Oscar noms

Last year’s Sundance Film Festival grand jury champion, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” hit it precociously big in Oscar season, with nominations for picture, lead actress, directing and adapted screenplay. Will “Fruitvale Station,” which won both the audience and grand jury prizes at Sundance this year, do as well?

Probably not, though the film, which opens in theaters Friday, does have realistic possibilities for noms.

Whatever your thoughts about the film (I liked it, Metacritic was at 78 as of Wednesday), its straightforward narrative might work against it in a best picture race filled with dynamic works. “Beasts” was an underdog throughout 2012, but ultimately made the cut thanks in large part to how original and multifaceted it seemed. “Fruitvale” doesn’t have the same attributes.

An 84-minute running time also doesn’t help the cause of “Fruitvale” with an Academy that tends to expect more heft. “Beasts” was the only one of last season’s nine picture nominees not to eclipse two hours, and even it was 10% longer than “Fruitvale.”  That’s not at all to say “Fruitvale” should push to extend its length — there are more important considerations for a film than what it means at awards time. But when it comes to AMPAS, shorter is more dismissible.

Without a picture nomination in the cards, you can probably forget about 26-year-old “Fruitvale” director Ryan Coogler following in the footsteps of 30-year-old “Beasts” helmer Benh Zeitlin to the Oscars. Because the screenplay category is divided into adapted and original, there’s a little more hope there for Coogler.

But the best chances for Oscar recognizing “Fruitvale” might be on the acting side. Michael B. Jordan is more and more shaping up to be this generation’s Denzel Washington, and after making memorable appearances on such shows as “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” this feels like his cinematic coming-out party. The lead actor category is notoriously challenging, but at a minimum, Jordan should be (forgive the cliche) in the conversation.

Then there’s Octavia Spencer, who won the supporting actress Oscar for “The Help” in 2011. Spencer is marvelous in “Fruitvale,” and a flashback scene between her and Jordan provide each with a searingly memorable clip. Perhaps Spencer’s performance isn’t quite as big in scope as the one in “Help,” but it’s still a legitimate player in this year’s game.

By the way, Melonie Diaz’s perf in “Fruitvale” is equally if not more worthy, but she won’t have the same name recognition entering the race.

At a minimum, “Fruitvale Station” has Indie Spirit Awards written all over it. It might go farther than that, thanks to Jordan, Spencer (and maybe Diaz), backing from the famously effective Weinstein Co. and the potential to become a real conversation piece. Even if Coogler and his picture ultimately get ignored by the Oscars, they have achieved something here. It reminded me of “United 93” — particularly in the final act — in how tense it made me feel. That’s no small accomplishment.

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