The directorial debut from Jordana Spiro, Night Comes On, is declarative and matter-of-fact, every plot development and character detail dropping like a challenge. The protagonist is a victim of abuse and bad choices made with few other options. Her little sister is veering off into the same kind of trouble that derailed her childhood. The outside world is a place tethered off from their reality, populated by adults who don’t have time — or the inclination — to help them. Night Comes On tells the story of two sisters bound together by shared trauma but who are trying, one uneasy step at a time, to move on from it — although the desire for revenge is nearly overwhelming.
“Every time I close my eyes, all I see is you,” says 18-year-old Angel LaMere (the captivating Dominique Fishback, who you may recognize from David Simon’s The Deuce), speaking to the memory of her mother. The film opens by telling us Angel is about to be released after serving a year in a juvenile detention facility, and the context of why unfolds intentionally, scene after scene. Angel doesn’t talk about herself, but others do, listing her crimes (shoplifting, drug use, unlawful possession of a weapon), talking about her family relationships (her father murdered her mother, Angel and her younger sister then bounced around foster homes), and discussing her future (“At the end of the day, nobody cares,” says the overworked, disinterested parole officer assigned to guide her along after her release).
People either ignore her or try to take advantage of her; “Saying I can’t handle it?” she combatively asks a friend of a friend, and how the man pivots the conversation from trying to sell her a gun to trying to buy her body is indicative of how everyone around Angel treats her. They want something, and when they can’t get it, they don’t notice her at all.
Except for Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), Angel’s 10-year-old sister, a little girl with a mop of hair and scuffed sneakers and a bunk bed in a foster home full of children starved for human contact (when a toddler immediately latches onto Angel, hugging her without abandon even though they’ve just met, your heart will just disintegrate). After not seeing Abby for two years, Angel visits her sister as a last-ditch effort to get her father’s address, but what clearly hurts the most is how Abby is growing up just like Angel did: unloved, unwanted, ignored. She acts far older than 10 years old and yet is painfully, undeniably young, with “RIP Mommy” written on her torn-up backpack. The girls have both lost their mother and also lost each other, but Angel’s quest for revenge — the reason she wants her father’s address, the reason why she’s carrying a handgun in her purse — may tear them apart again, possibly this time forever.
Night Comes On, which won the NEXT Innovator Award jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, was written by Spiro and Angelica Nwandu, and together the two women key in on certain elements of the female experience that are simultaneously universal and unique: the bonds between a mother and daughter and between sisters, the kind of competitiveness and protectiveness that can develop between two people vying for one person’s affection; the terrifying surprise of a girl’s first period; and the resignedness to abuse by men, whether emotional, physical, or sexual. And Fishback and Hall both give achingly good performances that reflect the impossible unfairness of growing up in a system that doesn’t care about you while you can only remember the love of someone who once did. Spiro peppers in flashbacks of Angel’s experiences with her mother to help us understand the deep trauma of her murder, but also lets moments of silence between Angel and Abby build in the present, presenting two worlds for us to consider: what the girls once had, and what the girls now must do. Would Angel killing their father fix everything? Or nothing?
“You don’t have to like everything,” Angel says to Abby when she complains of the disparity in her foster home, and it’s the kind of explanation of inequality and inequity that makes sense on paper but is heartless in reality. Night Comes On focuses on the challenge of trying to make sense of a situation that makes no sense at all, and its suggestion of revenge is one method, and its suggestion of love is another. How the film transforms from a movie about the former to one about the latter is on the strength of Fishback’s and Hall’s performances, and Night Comes On is a stellar debut from Spiro and one of the most deeply felt films so far this year.
Night Comes On is currently available in select cities and everywhere on VOD.
Image sources (in order of posting): Samuel Goldwyn Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Samuel Goldwyn Films