Like its determined heroine, “Night Comes On” burns with a smoldering fire, a heat that is no less intense, no less effective, for remaining largely beneath the surface.
The passionate feature film debut for both director (and co-writer) Jordana Spiro and star Dominique Fishback, “Night” is small scale, low key and not business as usual.
As written by Spiro and Angelica Nwandu, it boldly combines two different strands: a revenge melodrama about a determined daughter seeking retribution for her mother’s murder, and the emotional story of two sisters desperate for family closeness and connection but not sure they can trust it.
Spiro, best known as an actress and currently a regular on the series “Ozark,” displays a number of gifts here, including a fine sense of emotional reality and the ability to craft poetic scenes where they are least expected.
For a story with considerable narrative drive, “Night” starts with a surprisingly lyrical reverie as Angel (Fishback) remembers a moment of happiness with her mother, an understanding woman who tells her that if she closes her eyes “the cars in the night sound like the waves of the ocean.”
“I keep trying,” 18-year-old Angel reports, “but every time I close my eyes all I see is you.”
Her mother is all Angel ever sees because she has been murdered and Angel, introduced as she’s being released from a juvenile detention center near Philadelphia after doing time for unlawful possession of a handgun, is determined to avenge her death.
Angel has been in and out of trouble all her young life. Raised in foster homes (co-writer Nwandu spent a dozen years in them herself), she endured an abusive situation for years because she didn’t want to leave her younger sister, Abby, alone.
Fishback, who’s gotten strong notices for her work on David Simon’s “The Deuce,” reveals herself here as an actress of formidable presence and emotional range. She conveys so much urgency and emotional commitment as Angel that, the murderous nature of her quest notwithstanding, she gets us on her side immediately.
Angel’s first stop once she gets to Philadelphia is Marcus (Max Casella), a sleazy gun dealer (is there any other kind?) who is intent on extracting payment beyond cash for the weapon she wants to own.
Her next few destinations are what might be expected, an attempt to reconnect with pre-incarceration girlfriend Maya (Cymbal Byrd), and a meeting with no-nonsense probation officer Danny (the veteran James McDaniel), who has no patience with her lack of interest in what he represents.
The key stop for Angel, however, is visiting 10-year-old sister Abby (debuting actress Tatum Marilyn Hall), still making the best of indifferent foster care.
Considerably more voluble than her older sibling, gregarious Abby looks up to Angel, but years of having to fend for herself have made the younger girl suspicious of emotional connection, despite or maybe because she wants and needs it, and her first impulse is not to share the whole truth with her sister.
Caught in a similar dynamic, Angel does not level with Abby, doesn’t fill her in on the particulars of her current situation, and doesn’t even reveal all the reasons she wants to check in with her.
But, that said, Angel clearly feels protective about her kid sister, monitoring her progress in school and the medications her foster parents are giving her but wary about making emotional promises she may not be able to deliver on.
Circumstances conspire to give these two a day together, a rare span of one-on-one time, including a bus trip to an interlude at the beach, that brings the different aspects of their relationship into focus.
The tension and the love between the sisters is revealed as being equally real, as is Angel’s unwavering determination to do what she views as the right thing by violently confronting her mother’s killer.
As with much of this impressive first feature, that confrontation plays out in a way that is as satisfying as it is unexpected. Night does indeed come on for this film’s characters, but the light of day is present as well.
‘Night Comes On’
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Laemmle NoHo, North Hollywood