By David Rooney
Dominique Fishback follows her breakout work on The Deuce with an emotionally engaging turn as a bruised Pennsylvania teen on a mission of retribution in director Jordana Spiro's Night Comes On. Restrained, affecting and tenderly observed with a distinctly female gaze, the film takes some time to locate its center as an intimate drama of resilient sisterhood. But the delicacy of the bond etched between Fishback's Angel and her 10-year-old sibling, played by captivating discovery Tatum Marilyn Hall, keeps you hooked into this melancholy but hopeful story of fractured family dynamics.
The tragic loss of the girls' mother weighs heavily in the dreamy memories that open the film. In a prose-style voiceover, the dead woman's words evoke the caressing sound of ocean waves lapping the shore as a magical escape from reality, foreshadowing the key element of a seaside destination as the drama unfolds.
Angel is about to turn 18 when she's released from juvie after being convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm. Her father was arrested for the killing of her mother but has since been released, and her kid sister Abby has been placed in foster care with a Philadelphia family. Angel's first priorities are to reconnect with her girlfriend, Maya (Cymbal Byrd), and to procure another gun. She's more successful in the latter objective, though it requires some personal compromise with Marcus (Max Casella), the sleazy father of her former cellmate. But Maya has moved on, giving the impression that Angel was emotionally unavailable even before she went away.
A visit to Abby illustrates the deep flaws in the foster youth system. In contrast to her foster mother's biological child, who has her own bright and cheery room, Abby is one of several kids of various ages and ethnicities crammed into basic bunk-bedrooms with minimal care. She shrugs off Angel's concern about being prescribed Ritalin, admitting that her foster parent requests the drug for all the kids to increase their subsidies, then they sell the meds and split the profits.
As grim and exploitative as that reality appears, in Hall's disarming performance — emotionally unguarded, with just the right balance of funny attitude and innocence — Abby clearly rises above her situation. Ignoring Angel's determination to maintain a cool detachment, Abby keeps pushing to do something special for her older sister's birthday. But it emerges that the main reason she tracked down Abby was to locate their father.
While this early action is unhurried and somewhat familiar, the movie finds its sweet groove once Angel boards a bus for Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore, reluctantly agreeing to let Abby tag along. While Angel's dark purpose has been unmistakably implied, a lightness of touch lifts the mood as the circumspect older girl observes the carefree spontaneity of her sister's interactions with a group of chatty early-teen girls. When they end up briefly at the comfortable suburban home of one of those new acquaintances, Angel's eyes as she surveys the environment say plenty about the acute sense of loss she feels in regard to family.
Angel's determination to stick to her plan, heedless of the consequences, reveals a young woman whose adolescence has been erased and her whole life completely upended, giving her only the most desperate idea of how to fix it and reclaim control. Spiro and her actors coax gentle humor out of the contrast between that single-minded quest and Abby's ability to pull her sister off-course, getting her way with a detour to the beach as the sun goes down.
That gorgeous interlude becomes the heart of the original screenplay by Spiro and Angelica Nwandu, as a liberating dip in the chilly surf helps tensions fall away. It also resurrects the loving spirit of the girls' mother in Angel's memories of a day at the beach when she was 10 and Abby was just a baby. The younger sister, plainly yearning for real family connections that Angel has more or less given up on, adores her older sister. So her discovery of the pistol in Angel's bag crushes her.
The climactic stretch returns to a more brooding atmosphere as Angel's inevitable confrontation with her father (John Jelks, terrific) reveals a man struggling to put the sorrows of his past behind him. Their somber encounter doesn't yield the outcome Angel was expecting, and nor does it heal her wounds. But it gives her the resolve perhaps to move on toward a future in which she can let go of some of her pain and get closer to the person who cares about her the most.
Night Comes On is a modest film that opts for quiet contemplation more often than dramatic fireworks. But it rewards patience with its profoundly compassionate view of troubled characters and should open doors for actor-turned-director Spiro (currently appearing on Netflix's Ozark). It also cements the promise of Fishback as a face to watch. A magnetic presence at the center of virtually every scene, she gives a beautifully internalized performance, defined by taciturn Angel's anger but softened by her scarred humanity.
Production companies: Superlative Films, in association with Stoneboies Entertainment, Harhar Productions
Cast: Dominique Fishback, Tatum Marilyn Hall, John Jelks, Max Casella, James McDaniel, Cymbal Byrd
Director: Jordana Spiro
Screenwriters: Jordana Spiro, Angelica Nwandu
Producers: Alvaro R. Valente, Jonathan Montepare, Danielle Renfrew Behrens
Executive producers: Bill Harnisch, Ruth Ann Harnisch, David Stone, David Boies III, Donna Gruneich, Kevin Gruneich, Jennifer Westphal, Patty Quillin, Jordana Spiro, Matthew C. Spitzer, Larry Taube
Director of photography: Hatuey Viveros Lavielle
Production designer: Valeria De Felice
Costume designer: Begona Berges
Music: Matthew Robert Cooper, Nathan Halpern
Editor: Taylor Levy
Casting: Laray Mayfield, Julie Schubert
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Sales: ICM Partners