Midnight Special is readily understood as a film about being a parent who loves a child so much — and of course there are plenty of movies about people who love their children, so a common objection is that this one is too humorless and withholds action and who needs that? But there’s something about the way this film depicts the way adults interact with the child in question — not so much a cute kid like you’d see in a Steven Spielberg movie, but a weird kid like you’d read about in a Stephen King novel — that’s as heartening as it is serious and sad. It works as a metaphor for raising an autistic child, or a physically ill child, or a prodigy, or some other young handful. The climactic visualization of the remove between young Alton and his surroundings isn’t tremendously satisfying as an action set piece, but it’s a solid science-fiction metaphor, and it makes better emotional sense here than the same gimmick did in Tomorrowland. But in its presentation of confidence and selflessness as imperatives for parents and parental surrogates, Midnight Special plays like a stoic, even-keeled answer film to the crisis of faith posed by The Babadook.
Jeff Nichols’ spare shooting style involves widescreen frame compositions that are maybe a mite too fussy, but their otherwordly precision is as important to the film’s mood as the swelling, surging synth soundtrack, equal parts Tangerine Dream and Cliff Martinez, from David Wingo. And there’s a big scene early on that seems designed to tide the audience over for the duration; dramatically establishing Alton’s not-of-this-world credentials, it’s unexpectedly terrifying, and it buys Nichols a lot of time to draw out the film’s uniformly exceptional performances and build an unbroken atmosphere of tension, anticipation and dread. Have we seen this story before? Pretty much. It’s E.T. and it’s Starman and it’s got some Firestarter in it, too. It’s the same and it’s different — it’s more formally rigorous and more serious, for better and worse, than any of them.
Mainly, Midnight Special is about parents doing their damnedest to make the world right for a kid they love, even if that means surrendering him to a parallel dimension that they can just barely see and not even begin to comprehend. Saving him means giving him up. The tragedy is that the protagonists’ greatest triumph is one and the same with their most profound loss. But they know his release is necessary because he has told them so, and because they believe him.
I’m not a parent. But I do remember being a kid — a weird kid. And I think we would all want to be heard in this way.