Midnight Special

There’s something different about 8-year old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) that goes beyond his ghostly pale skin, reluctance to talk, blue swim goggles, and noise cancelling headphones – it seems that everyone wants something from him. The FBI wants to capture and study him, a cult wants to worship him as their saviour, and his father wants to help him escape. 

The film begins with a hurried exodus from a hotel room by two men and the boy, who has spent the night sleeping on the floor between two beds. Nothing is explained, and dialogue is terse. 

This set-up is what we will come to expect for the duration of Midnight Special, as information is doled out in the smallest of pieces, and back stories reveal themselves slowly, like a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest. 

Alton was born and raised in a cult (referred to as The Ranch) where his parents lived (both of whom have now escaped). This chase film / science fiction drama is, at its essence, not a new story: A being with extraordinary powers is misunderstood and hunted by the government and/or people who want to use them for their own purposes (think E.T., Phenomenon, Powder), save a few people who understand them and intervene on their behalf. 

To wit, we are introduced to Alton’s father, Roy (beautifully played by Michael Shannon - Boardwalk Empire series and Zod in Man of Steel among other credits), and a mysterious sidekick Lucas (Australian actor Joel Edgerton – we saw him in 2013 as Daisy’s obnoxious husband in The Great Gatsby) as they flee with Alton, who has just been placed on the Amber Alert list for having been abducted from The Ranch. For the first 20 minutes of the film, we aren’t sure whether the two men are good guys or not. 

The acting in this film is mostly excellent. I completely believed Michael Shannon as an escapee from a cult, and loved his quiet broodiness and fierce protectiveness of Alton at all costs. 

Joel Edgerton almost steals the show as Roy’s friend Lucas, who is putting his life on the line to help the two escape. His state of confusion is palpable, and some of his reactions are so honest and raw we are completely on his side right from beginning to end (I predict a very long and wonderful career for this actor). 

Adam Driver is perfectly cast as the ultra-intelligent professor brought in by the FBI to decipher just what Alton is. He achieves exactly the right blend of arrogance and nerdiness. Special mention as well to Sam Shepherd as the fanatical Ranch leader Calvin Meyer, and character actor Bill Camp as the hapless Doak.

I have to admit that it took me quite a while to warm up to Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), as her physical and emotional reserve with the boy just didn’t seem like an authentic mother/son relationship. I wasn’t surprised to learn, while researching this review, that she hasn’t had children herself, as I’m sure this would have fundamentally deepened her performance. Anyone who has been a parent will totally know what I mean. 

I also wasn’t overwhelmed by Jaeden Lieberher, who played Alton (granted, this is likely the fault of either the screen writer or the director). There was nothing interesting or endearing about his character, and if we don’t care a great deal about Alton’s well-being, then a large part of the movie’s emotional connection falls flat. 

Director Jeff Nichols also wrote the screenplay for this film and deserves kudos for some very good moments in the script (he’s clearly a master of brevity): 

Paul says to Alton, “The FBI thinks you’re a weapon and the Ranch thinks you’re a saviour.” 

Alton simply answers, “I’m neither.” 

This short interchange sums up the entire movie. Alton tells Roy, “Don’t worry about me” and Roy answers, “I like to worry about you, that’s not gonna change, that’s the deal,” which perfectly sums up parenthood. However, I wonder if another director would have breathed a more interesting light into the movie.

I would have enjoyed a little more exposition (or back story) earlier on to get my bearings, as the mystery actually became annoying. A lot of things are never explained. How does the FBI even know about Alton in the first place? Did Alton’s abilities create the religion at The Ranch? How does everyone know about this specific date and time that is looming? There are a lot of unanswered questions in this film. A lot!

No spoilers here, but there are some very magical special effects toward the end of the film, and some ideas that are interesting to ponder. The ending is left open to your own interpretation, and that is as it should be. Nothing else was explained, why would the end be any different? 

Movie locations and times

I give this film three hearts.

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About the Author

Kim Foreman-Rhindress is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and London Western Conservatory of music for piano and voice. 

Kim has been performing in theatre and film for over 30 years in Canada, NYC, Palm Beach, Los Angeles, and the Netherlands. She has written several plays which have been produced in Canada and the U.S., and is the founder of Kelowna Voice Lab - helping people find their voice, be it singing or acting. 

A working musician, she performs regularly in Kelowna with her husband, Jim Rhindress, in an acoustic duo Smitten, and with her vintage trio Kitsch 'n Sync.  

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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