Night Comes On isn't easy to watch. Jordana Spiro's directorial feature debut, which will have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, follows 18-year-old Angel LaMere (Dominique Fishback) as she leaves the juvenile facility she's called home for the last year and embarks on a quest for revenge against her father, who murdered her mother as she and her little sister watched.
If you think this all sounds vaguely Tarantino-esque, you're not entirely wrong — but there's a twist: When was the last time you saw a woman embark on a vengeful mission that didn't have to do with being scorned romantically?
And unlike Tarantino, whose films have an almost saturated, over the top quality, Spiro's movie stays very firmly rooted in reality. There's no goopy red gore, no shrill screams of terror, or Travoltian expression of masculinity — only the cold hard, harsh experience of a young woman who feels that she has been robbed of the life she was supposed to have by the person tasked with keeping her safe.
In fact, the script came out of a collaboration between Spiro and Shade Room co-founder Angelica Nwandu, who met while volunteering for Peace4Kids, a foster youth organization in Los Angeles. Nwandu, who lost her mother to domestic violence at the hands of her father when she was 6 years old, provided the real-life experience. Spiro, who has been acting for roughly 20 years, and whose short-film Skin, was critically acclaimed at Sundance in 2012, brought the technical skill.
"She and I just started talking and connected immediately," Spiro said in an interview with Refinery29. "And it was a very odd coincidence, because in the story that I was developing, I had already named the character Angel."
Despite the parallels, Night Comes On isn't a biopic. As Angel, Dominique Fishback, who recently made waves with her breakout performance as Darlene on HBO's The Deuce, manages to convey this vulnerability while outwardly projecting strength. She has to. The justice system has failed her in every way: It acquitted her father, failed to protect her from abuse sustained while in foster care, and then forced her to abandon her sister, the only family she has left. The shots of her feel almost claustrophobic — we're trapped along with her. Adrift in the world, she believes that this one act of murder will give her life meaning.
In the end though, that meaning comes in the shape of Abby, portrayed with zest and fierceness by newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall. Spiro held casting sessions for over a year before discovering the 10-year-old Harlem native, the 738th person to come in for a reading. Bounced around from foster home to foster home, she's both Angel's crutch and her salvation. A constant reminder of the horrors of the past, but also a glimpse of hope for the future. In this film, light and darkness live in tandem: A sweet scene between two sisters at the beach is tainted by the hidden gun in Angel's purse; an early morning sunrise on the river marred by the sexual trauma Angel had to endure to get there.
Assault, both sexual and domestic, is a shadow that looms large over the two protagonists. Barely out of juvie, Angel is coerced into trading sex for the gun she needs to fulfill her mission. We get hints that she was raped while in foster care — but didn't report it, so as not to leave her sister alone in an unsafe environment. This all contributes to the overall atmosphere of despair that threatens to overtake the film before we meet Abby. Still, these scenes are handled with the special care that comes from having women behind the camera.
The result is a moving, riveting movie that highlights the power of sisterhood, both on and off screen.
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