Midnight Special and the Tax of Parenthood
Quicker than you can say ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’ you’re in the thick of an old parenting allegory in Midnight Special. Two parents (Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst) are trying to protect their gifted child, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), from the government and a religious cult. As soon as Alton flicks through the pages of a Superman comic—itself another riff on a parenting parable with Ma and Pa Kent coming to terms with raising a special child from another world—the statement is clear. And Midnight Special feels a little tired as it treads this familiar parental path but it’s writer and director, Jeff Nichols, who makes the difference by packaging it up as neat, low-fi science fiction.
Midnight Special sits between two worlds: the aesthetic of an indie and the structure of a blockbuster under the banner of Warner Brothers. Nichols drifts between these worlds like someone deciding between the brunch or lunch menu. The quieter moments of Midnight Special are where Nichols takes the time to question the profound within the confines of the burden/blessing of a child, it’s as if Midnight Special was born from seeing the anxiety on the face of a new parent hours after the arrival of their first born. To play the personal card for a moment, when I held my son alone for the first time nearly two-years ago while my wife recovered from a delivery procedure, I felt the joy of his arrival fade and in its place was a crippling fear that I was not worthy. I wanted to run away because it felt like my life had ended in that room and this poor little person lost the lottery of birth. As the doubt settled—I truly believe parenting is a type of loose improvisation—I realised the enormity of the job, and you switch to guardian mode that comes with a little strength and courage. Despite what shiny happy parents say about the joyous gift of a child (those people are the worst), they really are a blessing and a curse, and I mean that as a commendation: children destroy your life in the best possible way.
Nichols drives the story from the sacrificial heart of the parents tasked with protecting their child and the acolytes (accompanying Shannon is Joel Edgerton playing a family friend) drawn toward the cause—it takes a community to safeguard a child. It’s not so much a case of ‘what would you do for your child?’ but ‘you have no choice’. It’s best evidenced when Alton’s estranged mother (Dunst) becomes part of the group after spending time in hiding and slowly realises there’s no escaping your brood.
The protective layers stack up on Midnight Special as the government takes an interest in Alton because one of his abilities is to interact with electronics, and it causes him to intercept the chatter and locations of satellites spying on the population for the sake of their own safety. Therefore, Alton becomes a threat to the national security of America. The government as an overprotective parent and agitator, okay, point taken; stand down Nichols.
Midnight Special follows the traditional beats of the pursuit driven narrative with the core group bouncing between locations and evading their pursuers while a government specialist (Adam Driver) is tasked with being the character who is always one step behind and asking all the questions to fill the gaps of the mystery. Nichols allows the story to unfold like a museum curator handling centuries-old tapestries and it comes together beautifully while maintaining the sting of the sacrifices made for Alton.
The selflessness of parenthood is loud in Midnight Special but it’s the thrust of the human side of a film that’s forever teasing the otherworldly payoff when the goods are flicking right in front of you.
The Popcorn Junkie.
Poster by Mondo.