SXSW Film Review – Midnight Special
The SXSW Film Festival this year does not have many heavy hitters this year. However, when Midnight Special was added to the schedule, the sci-fi nerd in me was a tad excited. I should say, from the trailer, it looks like a sci-fi film. How else could rays of light be shooting out of boy’s eyes? Maybe this is some comic book-influenced (X-Men) storyline infused somewhat realistically into the real world? Okay, so very little was known prior to seeing it other than maybe a Cyclops kid gets mixed up with a Mormon Fundamentalist group. Thankfully, Midnight Special is more creative than that.
Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) both wrote and directed Midnight Special. He is one of independent film’s recent success stories. Nichols takes it up a notch with this sci-fi story of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy growing sicker probably due to his special abilities, ones that cannot be explained. He was raised in a fundamentalist, religious ranch. His “special” words were taken as scripture. He was considered a prophet of sorts by its leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). His biological father, Roy (Michael Shannon), steals him away from the ranch with the help of his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Amid Amber Alerts, Alton is hurried towards a location. He becomes sickly because of his fits and abilities (light shooting out of his eyes, “tracker beam” like possession of other people’s concentration, and earthquakes and destruction follow him). Along the way, they meet up with Alton’s biological mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). The interest in Alton is not only coming from Meyer’s cult, but also the government, namely the NSA and FBI. Through all of this, no one knows what is happening to Alton or why.
Michael Shannon is to Nichols as Leonardo DiCaprio is to Martin Scorcese. They work well together and Midnight Special is no exception. In role of a doting, protective father, Shannon can come across as overbearing, but has an underlying duty to his son and wherever this journey is taking them. There is a panicked sense of urgency tinged with fear and sadness in Shannon’s Roy. Love also exudes from him as soon as the audience is made to realize what is going on. Edgerton’s Lucas is the protector, but has put blind faith in his friend and his son, but he is not without morals. Lucas is often the comic relief of the film. Shannon and Edgerton work well as a pair and it comes across as a tight-knit, do-or-die friendship, just what is needed for Alton.
Nothing would work in this film if it was not for Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton. This young actor is able to convey Alton’s special abilities without having had any point of reference other than possibly drawings and Nichols’ direction at the time of the scene. Yes, kids have great imagination, but this young man had to sell the effects to his fellow actors and it be believable enough for their reactions to be true. I can’t imagine myself doing something like that. He is central to the entire film, and Lieberher’s is one of the main reasons this film is plausible in the world Nichols created.
What is a bit different about this film is that it had studio backing with Warner Brothers before production began. It still has some indie film qualities, but the effects are ramped up a hell of a lot more. Could this film have been produced without studio money? Yes, but I would predict it would have relied on the imagination of the audience more. The only thing that would have been necessary to create on screen would be Alton’s abilities. While special effects are not at the heart of this film, and certainly do not make it tick, it does add more refinement and more awe from the audience. I was one of those people with their mouth open in the final act.
Midnight Special is one of those rare, original science fiction films that had me from start to finish. I did not figure out who or what Alton is until the moment of truth. The final act is equal parts adrenaline and wonder. Looking up to that screen and seeing the payoff of the story Nichols created is one of those cool moments in film I will not forget and having seen it at SXSW only makes it more memorable. The original score by David Wingo also comes together with the visuals to make the final act memorable. I did not want it to end.