Actress-turned-filmmaker Jordana Spiro proves herself to be a natural storyteller and a captivating director with her first foray behind-the-camera, Night Comes On. Intense yet compassionate, invigorating and heartbreaking, it’s a surefire accomplishment that’s told gracefully and truthfully, which resonates with you not only through its compelling direction but through its winning performance from Dominique Fishback.
A gritty, unflinching character study, Night Comes On follows Angel LaMere (Fishback), a troubled youth who is released from juvenile detention just before her 18th birthday. Troubled by a past that unravels to us, the viewer, in steady punches, we follow Angel as she attempts to reconnect with her girlfriend, her sister and, eventually, her father, the man who killed her mother several years earlier. It is a fragile, heartbreaking work. Rarely light and filled with hardships, it can be a difficult and uncomfortable viewing. But through Spiro’s touch, which can be both light and firm, we are given an intimate portrait that is quite ruthless at times but rarely without artistry, integrity or conviction. There is such power to the story’s central components that even when it dives into the darkness, there is an assurance that comes from the heartfelt filmmaking and invested performances. There is sympathy and there is a fine touch of reality working together.
Spiro’s direction, a mix of gentleness and confidence, results in an astounding debut. The actress is best known for her television work on sitcoms (My Boys) and serious-minded dramas (Netflix’s ongoing Ozark), and that diversity in talent can be seen in her filmmaking too. When the film ventures deep into the darkness, there’s a nice moment to balance out the sadness. When you think things are moving up, there’s always something to bring reality back into the fold. Spiro already demonstrates a balance of sensibilities that often doesn’t come from filmmakers with so few credits to their name. Thankfully, we should expect greater things from Jordana Spiro’s vision from this point.
As Night Comes On continues onward, the film, unfortunately, falls more and more into melodrama, which takes away from the rich nuance of its first half. That’s not to say that the movie sours; it just loses the same conviction that first made it so intriguing. The rawness that made it so invigorating isn’t captured quite as well by the third act. As the movie falls deeper into conventionalism, it doesn’t fail to captivate, but it doesn’t magnetize the viewer in quite the same. It’s a shame because there’s no denying that Jordana Spiro had the building blocks for a really powerful drama in the first two acts, and the ending doesn’t quite reach the full potential that was promised in those scenes.
Nevertheless, even though the screenplay, which Spiro co-wrote with Angelica Nwandu, doesn’t completely stick the landing, it’s strongest components are so engrossing that it’s easy to be absorbed by what it’s able to communicate so well for a majority of its length. The key component here, no doubt, is the lead performance from Dominique Fishback, who is natural and sincere and real and believable and heartbreaking in every waking moment the camera follows her. She communicates the tragedy in her life and the hope that keeps her going in every glance and stare. It’s a lived-in performance that is truly remarkable for such a young actress, and it’s through her unwavering conviction to the material that the movie continues to resonate through its weaker elements. Such is the strength of a great actress, as Jordana Spiro knows as an actress herself. Even if the material doesn’t truly capture the full depth of your work, your on-screen talent can.
The narrative itself is fairly conventional, not straying far from what you would expect. The problem with tragedies sometimes is that if it gets excessive, it can be too much. Not emotionally, I mean, but storywise. You often need a sliver of salvation, at least, and Night Comes On doesn’t often offer that comfort or relief. Yet, through the authentic performances and its attention to characters, Night Comes On rings true. It is, no doubt, a film guided with love and passion and commendable talent, and despite its flaws, it continues to push forward, showing a tremendous amount of promise for the future.