By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: NIGHT COMES ON

In her feature directorial debut, Night Comes On, writer-director Jordana Spiro, whose creepy-yet-touching short Skin made a mark, takes us into the world of Angel (Dominique Fishback), a young girl released from juvenile detention on the eve of her 18th birthday. Angel’s released into the world with few people to whom she can turn for help or support. As with Skin, Spiro shows deftness as a visual storyteller, unafraid to allow the camera to linger on the little moments that make a compelling character. Life has been hard for Angel, a smart girl who did actually once have plans and goals before circumstances sent her careening down a self-destructive path. We follow Angel throughout the film, from a dreamy, gorgeously shot opening sequence as she wanders from place to place, seemingly aimlessly, observing other people and the world but not quite taking part in it. Angel’s loneliness, her disconnect, are palpable.

Spiro deftly unravels what could have been a lot of overly complicated exposition to set up Angel’s story with a precise, tightly constructed opening sequence that reveals Angel’s back story with poetic minimalism, mostly revealed through Angel’s probation interview, and the subsequent conversation she overhears through a closed door as a group of unsympathetic adults discuss whether she should be released.  With a clipped, almost clinical coldness, we, along with Angel, hear them dissect her sad, brief life history to this point: Mother murdered in the family home. Father accused but released on a vague technicality. Sexual abuse in foster care, unreported for a year (at this a curt, female voice interjects, “A year? Why did it take her so long to report it?”).

After her time in juvie, Angel’s been trained to respond (or at least bend to)rules and authority, and so she dutifully goes to her parole officer (NYPD Blue’s James McDaniel, tonally perfect here) who, with a stern, detached clinicality mirroring the opening probation hearing scene, informs her in no uncertain terms that no one cares whether she succeeds or fails, so she better learn to take care of herself and set some goals.

What Angel doesn’t tell her PO is that she does have a goal, three of them actually: 1) obtain a gun and 2) kill her father with it, for which she needs to 3) get his address from the PO. When he (wisely) won’t give it to her, she calls a relative, who tells her to ask her sister Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), who’s been having unsupervised visits with their dad at his place. Soon the two sisters are reunited and embarking on one journey with two very different goals: Angel seeks to avenge their mother’s death without regard for what happens after that, and Abby seeks to reconnect with her sister and escape the perils of life in foster care..

In one particularly moving scene later in the film, Angel and Abby have randomly ended up on Long Beach Island in a nicely upper middle class home hanging out with three nicely upper middle class teens Abby made friends with on a bus ride with Angel to find their father’s house. Their new friend’s home is nicely upper middle class, and all three girls are blissfully unaware of any difference between Angel and Abby and themselves, in part because of Abby’s intelligence and her ability to immediately fit in with these girls.

Angel looks at pictures of the girl on a wall, and Spiro pulls the camera with methodical intent, back and back and back until what we see is this lost, sad girl whose “normal” was taken away from her when her mother was murdered, staring at this seemingly endless wall capturing the life of the girl in all its painful (to Angel at least) privilege. As Angel stands there taking this girl’s perfectly normal life, seemingly unattainable for her and Abby, the class divide, the stark difference between their lives is underscored and appended with an exclamation point.

Authenticity here is totally on point. Spiro’s co-writer Angelica Nwandu was herself a child of the foster care system, and Spiro herself incepted this tale while volunteering at Peace4Kids, which helps kids living in foster care “grow and discover their significance.

It’s not unsurprising that Fishback turns in a strong performance; tonally, she’s practically perfect, portraying Angel with a stoic, detached surface that makes you ache for the depth of her carefully concealed rage and hate toward her father, which peeks out from time to time. In spite of her circumstances, though, Angel never comes across as a victim. Newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall, who beat out a slew of other young girls for the role of Abby, makes a startling, powerful debut turn; a moment of explosive buried rage and fear bursting out of her was made all the more shocking because she’s otherwise such a sweet, painfully hopeful kid who – like all  of the 400,000+ kids living in foster care on any given day in the US – just wants a normal life and a chance to pursue her dreams as far as her smarts can take her.

One Response to “Sundance Review: NIGHT COMES ON”

  1. Lenora hall says:

    Congradulation Tatum Marilyn Hall on your role as Abby congrat to Jordana and the whole crew i will be the first to say god bless all of you praying all your dreams come true and this film will be a hit. I will speak this into exsistence.

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