Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 112 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This sci-fi film is about a young boy with mysterious powers fleeing from various people who are after him: various chase scenes, a few explosions and a crash scene, some fighting, beatings, and other violence, a religious cult environment, some language, and some supernatural elements and mysterious powers from the child protagonist.
‘Midnight Special’ is a film about fatherhood and faith, with sci-fi elements that are engrossing, mysterious, and will linger with viewers for a long time.
By Roxana Hadadi
How far would you go to protect your child, even if you don’t fully understand them? That’s the core question of “Midnight Special,” a sci-fi film that poses emotionally resonant questions about the nature of family, the responsibilities of parenthood, and having faith in what we can’t explain.
The film thrusts you into its world from the beginning: 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, of “The Confirmation”) isn’t a normal child. When we see him, he’s wearing dark blue goggles, with a sheet draped on top of him and using a flashlight to read, calm in a boarded-up motel room with grown men Roy (Michael Shannon, of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton, of “Exodus: Gods and Kings”). Nancy Grace is on the TV, talking about how Alton has been kidnapped from his home in Texas, but there’s clearly more to the story.
In fact, there’s a lot more to the story: Alton is Roy’s son, taken from him years ago by a cult called the Ranch in Texas. They used to live there until Roy left with the boy – so the “kidnapping” angle isn’t really true. They can only travel at night, driving to a destination Alton has decided upon, because the boy is extremely sensitive to light – he could die if exposed too long, hence the boarded-up motel room. And there are people trailing them – not only from the Ranch, but also from the U.S. government, curious about Alton’s light-sensitivity, the premonitions he sees, and and what they mean.
“I think you’re a weapon,” says NSA analyst Sevier (Adam Driver, of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) to Alton, but why? There’s a puzzle that has various layers, beginning with who or what Alton is; involving his father Roy and his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, of “The Two Faces of January”), who fled the Ranch when her son was taken from her; and culminating with why Roy and Lucas are working so hard to drive Alton through the Bible Belt to where he needs to go. What is waiting for them there, and why?
“Midnight Special” stacks questions on top of questions, but filmmaker Jeff Nichols likes working in mysteries about present-day Americana and probing the nature of the father-son relationship. That’s the focus here, and Nichols did both those things well in his previous films “Mud,” ostensibly about a criminal played by Matthew McConaughey but really about the changing way of life in working-class waterside communities, and “Take Shelter,” which starred Shannon as a construction worker seeing terrible visions of an apocalyptic event, fueled by global warming and climate change, that destroys the Earth.
Shannon is exceptional here, and his relationship with Lieberher is the core of the movie. When Alton says things like “You don’t have to worry about me” and Roy counters with “I like worrying about you,” that’s pretty much the entire definition of parenthood in one exchange – the emotional toll and the responsibility delivered succinctly in one line. Their bond is the crux of the film, but supporting turns from Dunst as a concerned, almost-desperate mother and Edgerton as Roy’s childhood friend, committed to the safety of Alton for his own reasons, are convincing, too.
To say too much else about “Midnight Special” would begin to give away its secrets, and it’s best to know almost nothing about the film going in. It’s disappointing, then, that the final act of the film is a barrage of CGI effects that almost over-explains everything. But for a film that veers between skepticism and faith, “Midnight Special” chooses a conclusion that has plenty of both. Not everyone may like it, but you’ll certainly keep talking about it after the film is over. Its strangeness and its thoughtfulness will stay with you.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.