Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

When Angel Lamere (Dominique Fishback), the protagonist of Jordana Spiro’s debut feature Night Comes On, returns to Philadelphia, the first thing she does is get her hands on a gun. It’s her 18th birthday, and she’s just been let out of juvenile detention with nothing to her name but a phone with a dead battery and a bus pass back to the city. Her life has been fucked-up and painful: Her father beat her mother to death, but never did time. Since then, she has bounced between homes, been a victim of sexual abuse, and lost touch with her kid sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall). Her short-term goals are to make nice with a probation officer (James McDaniel) and get a hold of her girlfriend, Maya (Cymbal Byrd). But she’s had revenge on her mind for a long time. What’s more, when she finds the 10-year-old Abby at her new foster home and questions her about the whereabouts of their dad, the girl insists that she can take her to his new place in New Jersey. She doesn’t know the address. But she can find it when they get there.

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The next morning, with a snub-nosed revolver in her purse, Angel poses as a single mother to buy two bus tickets to the Jersey shore: a round-trip for Abby and one-way for herself. What she does for the money doesn’t need to be spelled out: a black Chrysler growling up to a park corner; a languorous look in the direction of the river as Angel gets out some time later, clutching her purse. We’ve seen her dehumanized by society and by the system. Will she go through with her vengeance? Or is the possibility that she might be setting up Abby to repeat the same cycle enough for her to let it go? And which sister is really leading the other one along?

Fishback and Hall move confidently between the obvious ironies and foreshadowings of Spiro’s kitchen sink (as in, “everything but the ______”) realism. The former, best known for her roles on David Simon’s The Deuce and Show Me A Hero, gives translucence to Angel’s tough, desensitized exterior; without ever breaking, it hints at the vulnerability underneath. The latter, a newcomer, adds an extra dimension to the familiar scene-stealing, trash-talking kid. But the film around them—prettified by plush, delicate lighting and lens flares—has a tenuous grasp of tension. Spiro’s approach is entirely defined by what she frames out, not what she puts in front of us, a fact that ends up emotionally undercutting these two strong lead performances. The flat, woozy world Angel and Abby inhabit isn’t much more than the sum of its plot points and implied exposition—a world where redemption and humiliation are equally predetermined.