Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Top Ten List #9 Night Comes On

Director Jordana Spiro

Actresses Dominique Fishback and Tatum Marilyn Hall prepare for a shoot

Actress Tatum Marilyn Hall

Actress Dominique Fishback

NIGHT COMES ON             B+                  
USA  (87 mi)  2018  ‘Scope  d:  Jordana Spiro

A true indie film, very personal, featuring extraordinary performances from two newcomers, Dominique Fishback as 18-year old Angel Lemere, whose bookended voiceover offering poetic thoughts of her mother both opens and closes the film, and her younger 10-year old sister Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), both victims of a foster care system that devours young black girls before spitting them out as damaged goods.  An excoriating portrait of growing up in foster care, the film balances clarity of vision with compassion, getting under the skin of each character, where both unbelievably come alive onscreen, offering uncommonly penetrating insight into their world, where according to government statistics (Youth Involved with the Juvenile Justice System | Youth.gov) girls are the fastest growing population in the American juvenile detention system, with minority youth more likely to be detained, where blacks are over-represented, comprising the highest entry rate in juvenile detention (38%) as well as adult prisons (58%), though blacks are only 14% of the U.S. population, while looming in the background is a rearrest rate of 55% for released juveniles.  Brilliantly written by a writing team of the white director, taking a break from her acting career, and black co-writer Angelica Nwandu, much of it mirroring Nwandu’s own life story, told with a delicate hand, creating an astonishing portrait of lives that are set up to fail, with little education and no work skills, usually ending up on the street living lives of crime, prostitution, and homelessness, yet those living in the system must persevere, usually with little or no guidance, left to fend for themselves, primarily off the radar, leading invisible lives that no one sees or cares about.  In this case, both girls were thrown into the foster care system after their mother was murdered by their father, where he was sent to jail and ultimately acquitted, while they languished in a prison-like atmosphere for nearly a decade, where the criminal justice system failed to prevent Angel from being sexually abused, then forced her to abandon her sister, punished for crimes they did not commit.   With Angel in and out of 13 foster homes, never once treated for the obvious trauma of the incidents, both sisters carry scars and wounds that may never heal, yet to the film’s credit, it is a brazenly honest depiction of getting out, brilliantly exposing one woman’s inner chaos, finally having the freedom to make her own decisions, to set things straight, and find that purpose in life.  After a harrowing visit before a judge that couldn’t care less about her, she’s forced to visit a probation officer who cares even less, with neither authority figure having the slightest inkling of understanding of just who they’re dealing with, viewed instead as interchangeable parts.  In this film, we meet the person underneath, filled with insecurities and signs of desperation, yet forced to exude a façade of strength and confidence, never allowing anyone or anything to get to you, stoically handling your business, including disappointments, as if nothing shakes you, as that’s the only way you’ve managed to survive.  As her name suggests, Fishback, in one of the performances of the year, is an avenging angel hell-bent on settling matters with her father, but as the film unfolds it reveals how easily she gets sidetracked. 

Set somewhere in Philadelphia, Angel’s first order of business is recharging her phone, her lifeline to the outside world, which isn’t as easy as it seems, refused by multiple vendors, followed by a visit to the local gun dealer (Max Casella), having to provide a sexual favor for the price of a handgun.  Only then does she pay a visit to Abby, a bubbly, live-wire girl living with a foster family more interested in the income it brings than the welfare of any of the kids, who are left alone unattended, basically raising themselves.  Even though there’s a special connection between them, and an especially tender moment when an infant strolls onto the scene and just clings to them both, Abby senses Angel’s urgency to find their father, where that above all else is what matters.  As Abby has met with him a few times since his release, that raises Angel’s suspicions, as she doesn’t want her to have anything to do with him, as he’s the man who killed their mother.  Yet she is on a mission to find him, a single-minded purpose that drives the film, as it’s behind each and every action that takes place, all secondary to a revenge that feels inevitable.  But this film is never heavy, or depressing, despite a series of disappointments, as both sisters are too busy living their lives to dwell on such things, as there are always matters to attend to, and choices to be made, such as finding a place to stay.  Angel is a girl with an attitude, where she’s not afraid to use her mouth to intimidate in order to get what she wants, yet despite her fiery temperament, she’s all mixed up inside, trying to put the pieces together to form a life that she can recognize as her own.  Instead she’s still on borrowed time, running into an old girlfriend Maya (Cymbal Byrd), thinking she can stay with her, but that plan is aborted when she’s apparently found another lover to replace her, turning the situation awkwardly weird, having to save face, suggesting there’s plenty of “bitches” out there that want her.  But she ends up alone in the entryway of a randomly chosen apartment complex, sleeping on the floor, rising early before anyone notices her.  It feels like this is not the first time she’s had to resort to these extreme measures, finding protection from the outside elements, and even a bit of secrecy.  What follows is a trip to the ocean, as Abby indicates their Dad lives near the beach in Jersey, bartering for the cheapest rate, with Abby finding another multiracial group of girls her age on the bus, who eagerly invite her along, as if that’s what they’re used to, with one suggesting her mom could drive them the rest of the way to the beach.  As they all make their way to her safe, middle class suburban home, filled with the kinds of family comforts they’ve never had, Angel senses trouble, especially when one of the girls Google’s their father, trying to get a bead on his address, instead discovering he’s a murderer, so they make a hasty exit.  This dichotomy of the life they could have had with the one they’re left with couldn’t be more profound, feeling explosive, like a slap in the face, leaving them both hurt and angry, as things just never go their way. 

A powerful story about women of color in particular, with sisters that have an instrinsic effect on each other, this film has a searing realism that catches viewers off guard, connecting us to things large and small, demonstrating an eye for restraint, while always remaining detailed and observant.  When Abby explains the truth, that their Dad lives nowhere near the beach, but she just wanted a day they could happily spend together, just one special day, but that exploded in monumental disarray, suddenly on the run again, as if they’ve done something wrong.  Angel, of course, is furious to be misled and sent on a wild goose chase, but Abby’s motives couldn’t be more achingly real, as she just needs a friend.  Making their way to the beach, which is absolutely deserted, they splash in the waves, playing like kids, actually having a moment of fun.  When Angel tries to tell her she’s not a good influence, that she’s more trouble than it appears, Abby takes our collective breath away by telling her straight up, “I think you’re the greatest thing in the world.”  The pause that occurs afterwards is well-deserved, where there are quiet, probing moments, with a terrific score from Matthew Robert Cooper that underplays the raw emotion on display, further accentuating the effectiveness of its intimacy.  With beautifully composed cinematography by Hatuey Viveros Lavielle, the healing power of the sea recalls 2016 Top Ten List #1 Moonlight, as if all sins are washed away, only to resurface again instantly afterwards in a terrifying moment when Abby finds the gun in Angel’s purse, knowing she’s going to do something terrible, bringing the wrath of despair back down upon their openly exposed lives, suddenly carrying the weight of the world again on their shoulders.  In the long bus ride home in the dark, Angel slips off the bus while Abby is asleep, abandoning her once again, though everyone in the theater knows why, as it’s the final showdown with her taciturn father (John Earl Jelks), who invites her in, still living at their former residence where the incident occurred, yet plainly hasn’t much food or economic opportunity following his prison stint, barely scraping by.  It’s an exquisitely written scene, blisteringly honest, with few words, but very telling responses to each other, as they couldn’t be more squeamishly uncomfortable.  Her Dad isn’t the scary monster we’re led to believe, obviously pummeled down to size from his imprisonment and the humiliating rejections that follow, stained by his own actions, forever associated with a horrible crime, where he’s a pathetic sight, wallowing in his own impotence.  Just exactly how she handles the situation is the stuff of poetry, yet unabashedly real, as she literally reclaims her life in the process, finding that grace note that has always eluded her, discovering a unique kind of clarity, as if a storm cloud has been forever removed from continually pummeling her with a neverending torrent of rain.  The finale couldn’t be more optimistic, where despite all the infractions associated with missed appointments and various rule violations, they seem insignificant in the grander scheme of things, as she’s finally free to build a life of her own, no longer adrift, eradicating all the anger that was holding her back, suddenly light as air and free as a bird.  It’s a brand new day, and one of the most deeply felt films seen all year.     

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