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Catching Up on 2016: Josh Reviews Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols, amazingly, wrote and directed not one but two films that were released in 2016.  The second was Loving, a magnificent drama about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple forbidden from marrying in Virginia, whose case eventually came before the Supreme Court in 1967.  I missed his first 2016 film, Midnight Special, when it was released to theatres earlier in the year, but I was delighted to catch up with it during my end-of-the-year catch-up rush before finalizing my Best Movies of 2016 list.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Midnight Special tells the story of a young boy, Alton Meyer, who appears to have some sort of special powers.  When the film opens, Alton’s father Roy (Michael Shannon) and friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are in hiding and on the run with Alton.  They seem to be trying to evade both government agents as well as members of a Texas cult in which Roy and Alton were once involved.  As Alton’s condition deteriorates and their pursuers close in, their situation becomes increasingly perilous.

Mr. Nicols’ film throws the audience right into the story in media res.  This is exciting, but also somewhat confusing and I found it took quite a while for me to have any sense of what was going on.  Part of this is on purpose, as Mr. Nichols’ story very slowly and methodically doles out information about Alton’s special nature and his and Roy’s past.  But I found I enjoyed the second half of the film, when I had a better understanding of the players and the stakes, more than I did the more opaque first half.

What I love best about Midnight Special is the tone, one that has a heaping helpful of nostalgia for the great sci-fi/fantasy Amblin Entertainment films of the eighties that involved kids and paranormal events.  But unlike a film such as J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (which I like a lot), which succeeds primarily as an exercise in nostalgia, Midnight Special also has an intensity and hand-held grittiness that made it feel very modern, very of-the-moment.  Mr. Nichols has done great work in striking this balance.

He’s assisted by the wonderful cast he has assembled.  Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, The Night Before) is always wonderful, and so no surprise he is terrific here as the main adult character.  Mr. Shannon’s intensity is always mesmerizing, and it’s nice to see that quality presented here in a heroic and noble character rather than a villain.  Roy is laser-focused on protecting his son Alton, no matter what happens to himself or anyone else, and Mr. Shannon’s powerful persona is well-harnessed for this character.

Joel Edgerton was one of the two lead characters in Loving.  He has a smaller role here as Roy’s loyal friend Lucas, but he’s once again great.  I like his chemistry with Mr. Shannon; the two are very different actors but they mesh well.

I almost didn’t recognize Kirsten Dunst, who appears in the film’s second half as Alton’s mother.  She does very solid, restrained work.  It’s nice to see her having moved past her Spider-Man days.  I had no idea Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) was in this movie, but he’s terrific as the good-hearted NSA analyst investigating Alton.  It’s great seeing Mr. Driver play a fairly ordinary good-guy character.  Sam Shepard has a small role as the Texan Pastor Calvin Meyer.  I wish he had more to do in the movie.

Then there is young Jaeden Lieberher, who plays the mysterious Alton.  Mr. Alton is great, well-cast and well-directed by Mr. Nichols.  He spends much of the movie as something of a cypher, a mystery that the audience has to try to unlock.  That’s tougher than it looks, but Mr. Alton nails it.

Midnight Special is aimed right at my movie-going sweet-spot.  I love sci-fi stories and coming-of-age tales, and Midnight Special has that plus the Amblin Entertainment nostalgia factor that I was discussing earlier.  The downside is that the film is colder than I’d expected.  It keeps the audience at a distance in the first half, because of the thick layers of mystery we need to unravel in order to make sense of what is happening.  But I enjoyed the mystery, and the terrific cast keeps the story anchored in reality and emotional truth.  Midnight Special is not a home run, but it’s a very entertaining film that I’m glad to have seen.  If you, like me, have a love for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and that sort of film, then Midnight Special is worth checking out.

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