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Sundance 2018 Review: ‘Night Comes On’

Sundance 2018 Review: ‘Night Comes On’

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We’ve seen plenty of coming-of-age films before, but Jordana Spiro’s film Night Comes On, gives us an extra layer and depth to this genre that we quite haven’t experienced before—themes of loss, revenge, and perseverance are threads that weave this story together as we follow along the journey of two sisters Angel (Dominique Fishback) and Abigail Lemere (Tatum Marylin Hall).

Two days away from her eighteenth birthday, Angel Lemere is released from juvenile detention.  She’s had a string of offenses on her record from shoplifting to drug use.  In this latest stint for Angel, she was in juvenile detention for unlawful possession of a weapon.  We quickly realize why Angel is so troubled—her mother was murdered by her father, whose appeal was dropped due to insufficient evidence. He’s now living in an undisclosed suburb. We also discover that Angel’s past has been riddled with sexual abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and living in poverty. Abby is Angel’s younger sister, who is only ten years old and currently living in foster care. 

She used to say the cars in the night could sound like the ocean. Like the waves, running in and out like the tide. You squeeze your eyes tight enough, you could almost see the sun, smell the salt, feel the sand. Doesn’t matter where you are, she says, you’re in a bright sunny beach relaxing in the sun.  I keep trying, but mom—every time I close my eyes, all I see is you.

This is the cold open quote for the drama Night Comes On.  

When Angel is released, she only has one thing on her mind, recharge her dead cell phone, get her sister out of foster care, and exact revenge on her father responsible for the death of their mother. Haunted by her past, she embarks on a journey along with Abby that could destroy their future.

Night Comes On is reminiscent of the award-winning film Moonlight in some ways, including its structure as a coming-of-age film. There is also a beautiful beach scene, which tells me that somehow the beach has this interesting connection to Blackness and freedom. It just dawned on me that there is something about water and its ability to impede free motion and offers resistance to movement.  The metaphors there are endless. We also hear the sounds of waves meandering throughout the film, and our lead protagonist Angel is a queer character. The parallels between the two films are quite evident. 

We learn more about Angel’s love interest Maya, whom she contacts soon after she’s released from juvenile detention. However, the time and distance between them leads to the disintegration of their relationship, and Maya has found someone else, leaving Angel with a void she’s looking to fill. There are brief moments of danger when Angel possesses a weapon that she carries with her during her journey, and this gun makes us nervous, becoming a third character that follows Angel and Abby during their trip to Long Beach Island.

Angel’s motives in this story are keeping her sister Abby safe and seeking out revenge on her father for her mother’s murder. She balances this extraordinary dichotomy between being a careful nurturer and protector of her younger sibling, to risking it all and endangering her own life to hunt down and seek retribution for her mother’s homicide. Angel wants to safeguard Abby while fulfilling her own selfish desires, and Abby wants the freedom to have her sister around knowing that Angel has committed one too many crimes that has compromised her liberty, and her relationships with family, friends, and lovers. Abby is a free-spirited ten-year-old who latches on to meeting new people and seeking out new experiences.  She wants a normal life and, most importantly, wants to move on from her tragic past.

Jordana Spiro makes her feature-film debut with Night Comes On, which she also co-wrote along with Angelica Nwandu. She developed the film at the Sundance Institute’s Directors, Screenwriters, and Composers Labs, and through a Cinereach development grant. Spiro took this film and expanded it into a character study; being an actor-director, it makes sense that she would craft this story with a heavy focus on character development. The actress has starred in numerous films and television series, including The Good Wife, Royal Pains, Blindspot and is currently acting in her second season of Ozark for Netflix. 

It was interesting to see that, according to an interview ran a few years ago on IndieWirethe film is loosely based on co-writer Angelica Nwandu’s experiences. According to reporting from Tambay A. Obenson, she tours the country, performing poetry that tells the story of how domestic violence changed her life after her father murdered her mother. Through further research, Angelica was also pushed into the Los Angeles foster system where she claimed to have been abused verbally, mentally and sexually. Angelica Nwandu is the owner of one of the fastest growing and most popular entertainment websites, The Shade Room, for which she was just named one of Forbes 30 under 30 in Media. She is a 2014 June and May Sundance Screenwriting Fellow, as well as a 2014 Time Warner Fellow.

Out of this strong story comes even stronger performances from both Fishback and Hall. The standout performance in this film is from newcomer Tatum Marylin Hall. Making her feature film debut, she is the sparkling heart and soul of this film. Her performance gives us hope through the eyes of a child that has been burdened with a failed foster care system and home life, and her ambition and perseverance despite this background are what really resonates on the screen. What we see in Abby, and through Tatum’s performance, are what we hope to see in the future of these two sisters—a bright side in a world filled with darkness.

Dominique Fishback, who you’ve seen before in HBO’s The Deuce gives an incredibly provocative performance as the lead protagonist Angel. Some of the most stunning moments are when Angel stands there in silence, forced to think through her decisions, both past and present. Fishback does a magnificent job of telling a story without using words simply from alternating her facial expressions, which is a skill that not every actor can master. These two fine actresses contribute further to the overall narrative, fortifying an impactful story-driven plot.

One of the things I really respect about this film is the appearance of its leads. Often times—in movies and TV—Black women characters are depicted as thin, light-skinned, and with silky loose curls. We see real girls with curves and with hair that is coarse and looks natural. It was refreshing to see actresses Fishback and Hall in this way.

The pacing is a bit slow at times, as the story is busy marinating and cooking to give you a well-seasoned account of events as they unfold but, overall, the drama is compelling and interesting to watch.

I walked away feeling like these two sisters were girls I’ve gone to school with, girls who’ve braided my hair, girls I’ve exchanged friendship bracelets with.  I felt a deep connection to the protagonists in this movie and that’s what made this film so fascinating.

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Night Comes On is a film that will likely get the kind of buzz from cinephiles and film geeks that are fans of coming-of-age tales that explore more of a character analysis than a story-driven one. It’s a film that will stick with you long after turning it off, yearning for more female-driven stories like this one and hoping they become just as poignant as other films to broader audiences.

Night Comes On is currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival.

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