Angel Lamere, an eighteen-year-old fresh out of juvie, should be at the beach. She grew up dreaming of being by the water; on her mother’s suggestion, cars passing in the night sounded like ocean waves, and we get to experience these sounds alongside her. The beach is the last place she felt safe. It feels like home, or at least, what home ought to feel like. En route to the shore to confront her estranged father, she gets into a massive argument with Abby, her ten-year-old sister, who levels accusations of abandonment her way. Instead of frolicking in the sand, the two sisters await a dismal return home, their contemplative silence speaking a thousand words as they crouch beneath a bus stop shaped like a tidal wave. Its blue paint is chipped and peeled, like something from a faded memory.
This is the world of Night Comes On, in which Dominique Fishback (The Deuce), who plays Angel, and debutante Tatum Marilyn Hall, who plays Abby, are allowed to do just that: play. Playfulness is usually whimsical — for all we know, first time feature director Jordana Spiro (Ozark’s Rachel) may have run a jovial set — but Fishback and Hall’s playfulness, as it exists on screen, takes the form of daring exploration. Spiro’s kitchen-sink realism keeps the dialogue to a minimum (much of the chatter with side characters feel intentionally perfunctory), allowing her bold actresses to bounce off one another in an oddly touching revenge saga.
The film is structured as a series of confrontations rooted in the mistakes of the past. Angel, walking a fine line between revenge and redemption, comes face to face with a girlfriend who’s moved on, a sister who can’t, and father whom she wishes she could move on from. Where the film lives and breathes, however, is the silent moments in between these confrontations. The days, the hours, that build to the inevitable showdowns, changing the outcomes along the way as Angel interacts with the world around her. Her father was suspected, and eventually cleared, of killing her mother years prior. Upon her release, Angel’s sole focus is to stand face to face with this ghost of her past, gun in hand, though she can’t do that without first reconnecting with her other ghosts in order to find out where he is. Namely, she needs to approach her younger sister Abby, who’s been bouncing around between foster homes in Angel’s absence — maybe even because of it.
Spiro, who co-wrote the film with Angelica Nwandu, gives her actresses ample room to flex; she must, as the story hinges on their ability to align external journeys with mismatched interior truths. Both sisters harbour secrets on their trip to the beach, their obfuscation giving rise to mistrust and resentment. Angel carries a recently bought gun in her purse, herself uncertain about what lies at the end of her road. Abby, on the other hand, acts suspicious about her father’s exact whereabouts, unwilling to let Angel back out of her life again.
Fishback’s job is to hide in plain sight. The grudges Angel harbours sprawl out in all directions, against the people and systems who, despite her best intentions, keep knocking her back down. The world wasn’t built for a queer black teen, but she faces it with resilience. Should she choose to let her true feelings show — towards her snarky parole officer, or toward the litany of people unwilling to show her basic decency — it would either put her at risk of going back behind bars, or consumer her completely. So she retreats.
Hall, conversely, has the herculean task of portraying an invisible little girl who wants to be seen. Abby is one of several kids at her new foster home, where adults never seem to be around. She wants a father, despite the murder charge against him. She wants a sister, despite the real chance of being alone once again. She wants pretty nails, and pretty hair, and to be accepted by the groups of teen girls she comes into contact with; in a particularly touching scene, Angel reluctantly guides Abby through her first period. Where this misshapen world has pummeled Angel into compliance, Abby hopes to force her way into it. When charged with the heaviness of the material, Hall delivers a spellbinding performance, summoning anger and hurt and raw emotion from behind Abby’s hardened exterior.
The shell Fishback creates for Angel reads like defeat. Cinematographer Hatuey Viveros Lavielle even shoots her in flat, muted lighting as she navigates the world, blending in to the backdrop (though she bursts with colour and contrast in moments of isolation and flashback). Angel is, quite simply, fed up with everyone’s bullshit, but the ice she’s skating on is thin for her to step out of line. One wrong move, and her journey to finding her father is over, though what she hopes to find at the other end is in constant flux. Fishback, while stone-faced whenever the situation calls for it, lets flickers of vulnerability shine through, even when the film’s dialogue occasionally falls on the wrong side of stilted. As much as Angel wants to be a protector — she’s tender toward Abby, despite her irritation — there’s still part of her that wishes she could be protected, complicating her eventual confrontation with the man she’s determined to kill.
When the film reaches its quiet, razor-sharp climax, Jordana Spiro’s high-wire act comes into focus. Night Comes On lodges its revenge saga within a cycle of violence, exploring not the cycle’s violent outcomes, but the moments that build to them. These moments are malleable. They’re determined by the slightest of changes in Angel’s environment. Kindness. Cruelty. Guilt. Or simply, realization. What sticks out most about these moments, though, is that while they’re cemented into an angry path walked by broken people, any one of them could crack, breaking the cycle. That’s something Angel owes to her sister, if not to herself.
Night Comes On is in limited release, and available through the usual VOD services, now.