Writer-Director Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Midnight Special, is a real throwback to the sci-fi classics of the 1980s. However, does the film make its own mark or simply wallow in nostalgia?
Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is a special little boy. He has powers that are not of this world and is pursued by both a religious cult as well as the U.S. Government. The cult, run by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), pursues Alton not only because they worship him for his powers, but also because his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has rescued him from the cult, effectively kidnapping the child. With the help of his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy is taking Alton back to his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and then on to a location that Alton has talked about during his “fits,” where he speaks in tongues. However, what NSA analyst Paul Savier (Adam Driver) has discovered is that Alton is not speaking in tongues, but is intercepting U.S. satellite transmissions. Along with FBI Agent Miller (Paul Sparks), Sevier represents the government’s attempt to capture Alton. Meanwhile, Calvin Meyer has sent his own men, Doak (Bill Camp) and Levi (Scott Haze), in pursuit of Alton. Calvin has built his religion around Alton’s outbursts and believes his people need him on “The Day of Judgment” so they can be saved. The race is on.
While Nichols’ story stirs up memories of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Firestarter, and a dash of Cocoon, it is very much its own film. Nichols has crafted a masterful indie sci-fi film with heart. I almost wish I could have seen the film without knowing the basic synopsis. I wanted to see it unfold slowly for me, because Nichols throws the audience right into the story with little to no explanation. It takes a little bit for the reveal that Roy is even Alton’s father. There’s not much more I can say without giving away the whole movie, just know that while it is a quiet film, it is filled with wonder and amazement. It’s a great father-son story that flips its dynamic late in the film as Alton comes to understand his powers more fully. There’s also a strong spiritual thread running through the film, but not necessarily centered on traditional religions. The only issue I had with the film was that I would have liked some more development on the government side of things. Sevier doesn’t necessarily become obsessed with the case, but I think the story could have used that wrinkle. I wanted to see a little more Close Encounters Richard Dreyfus in him.
The cast is stellar, giving nuanced performances that never feel showy. Shannon, a Nichols regular, delivers an emotional portrayal of a father trying to hold onto his son that never strays into melodrama. Edgerton does really well as the friend who’s not totally sure what he’s getting into, while Dunst shines as a mother finally reunited with her son. The real star, of course, is Lieberher as Alton. I loved him in St. Vincent and he delivers another fantastic performance here as a boy transcending humanity. He carries the film on his shoulders and does an excellent job. I really liked Driver too, but as I said, I wanted a little more from his character. He does well with what he’s given, though, as does Sam Shepard, who isn’t in this film nearly as much as he should be.
Overall, while Midnight Special is a great throwback film, it does just fine on its own weaving a tale of wonder with heart. Nichols is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers, especially if he’s going to continue to deliver quality work like this. If it’s playing in your area, definitely check it out.