Every year, the Sundance Film Festival makes headlines due to the handful of bold films by talented new filmmakers that capture the attention of audiences in Park City. These films sell to major studios for tens of millions of dollars, and dominate conversation among cinephiles – while hundreds more films in each stacked Sundance selection get buried, often never finding a distribution deal that would help them see the light of day outside of the festival. Night Comes On, which is continuing its festival run at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, premiered at Sundance back in 2018, but has mostly slipped under the radar even after receiving a theatrical release in the US.
In a few years time, when we look back on the festival films that had left a standing impression after the hype wore down, Jordana Spiro’s feature debut will likely be amongst those held in the highest regard. Night Comes On is an intimate drama that can easily fall through the cracks when drowned out by more nakedly audacious films at festivals. Stripped away of those distractions, this film’s subtle charms and delicate approach to potentially melodramatic subject matter have left it staying with me long after I finished watching. That it hasn’t been given the rapturous response it deserves is utterly mind boggling.
Angel (Dominique Fishback) is being released from juvenile detention early due to good behaviour. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy of the justice system coupled with a traumatic past has made it hard to transition back into normal life; her mother was murdered by her father, who she isn’t permitted to visit or have any contact with – making it difficult for her to find work, as she doesn’t have a birth certificate or alternate proof of ID, which she needs a parental signature to secure. Thrown out by her girlfriend due to a sudden reappearance with no warning, Angel decides to embark on a journey with her ten year old sister Abby (newcomer Tatum Marilyn Hall), who tells her that she’s had recent contact with their dad. Robbed of a normal family home for the pair, she uses the journey to contemplate seeking justice for her mother’s murder.
The film’s strength lies in the screenplay, co-written by Spiro with Angelica Nwandu, that effectively keeps its cards close to its chest as to whether we’re watching a lowkey revenge drama, or a lowkey social realist tale of adapting to normalcy after time behind bars. Angel’s thought of avenging her mother’s death is always hovering in the background, but never pulls into focus, lest the film start appeasing some of the more tired revenge movie tropes. This is predominantly a film about a relationship between two sisters whose lives have been ripped apart and forced in different directions following a tragic incident – making the ramifications of Angel’s vengeful thought process hold far more weight, even if it decidedly takes a back seat within the drama.
Despite the tragic circumstances, Night Comes On rarely becomes harrowing, or emotionally overwhelming. An early moment where Angel is almost coerced into sex in order to pay for a gun sets the table for a bleak drama that never rears its head again. The performances of Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall are the elements keeping the film from regressing into reductive misery porn; both excel at playing difficult, emotionally complex roles, while simultaneously finding a lighter side to their odd couple relationship. It frequently plays out more like a mother/daughter relationship than that of sisters – something which the screenplay, naturally plays up for laughs. I was especially taken by Hall’s performance. This is her debut screen credit, and for a young performer to be able to manoeuvre between an offbeat sense of comic relief, and a heartrending vulnerability is not to be understated. It seems like the easier role when played against a more withdrawn older sibling, but this is deceptive. I can’t imagine many young performers being able to seamlessly transition between comic asides and moments of dramatic devastation, often within the same moment.
Night Comes On is an impressive directorial debut for Jordana Spiro, and a powerful showcase for two young actresses with a bright future ahead of them.