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Jaeden Lieberher stars as other-worldly child Alton in Midnight Special.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Midnight Special
Written by
Jeff Nichols
Directed by
Jeff Nichols
Starring
Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Jaeden Lieberher
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

There's a scene in Midnight Special, the new film from the unconventional American writer and director Jeff Nichols, in which the otherworldly child at the centre of the plot begins to speak in tongues – perfect Spanish, actually. When a companion and protector asks what is going on, the boy's father tells him to tune the dial on the car radio, and eventually he hits the Hispanic station that the young Alton Meyer is parroting. This eight-year-old isn't possessed by God or the devil; he's just channelling the airwaves.

Not that being the parent of a pint-sized receiving tower isn't deeply unsettling. In a country where thousands of citizens apparently believed last summer's Jade Helm 15 military exercise was cover for a coup, Nichols deftly and eerily evokes apocalyptic interpretations of both religion and technology. He does not, however, successfully pursue the issues he raises in a sci-fi film that doesn't know where to go once it has escaped the overwrought conventions of the genre.

The film begins with startling mystery as Alton is abducted by his own father, Roy (Michael Shannon), with the help of an unexplained but steadfast confederate named Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Turns out, they are escaping a fundamentalist Texan cult where the stoney-faced patriarch (a chillingly tamped-down cameo from Sam Shepard) has forcibly adopted Alton. (In that role, the young Jaeden Liberher is also impressively low key.) The patriarch and his many followers believe Alton is their saviour, and that the numbers he keeps repeating are the co-ordinates and date for an end-time event that will save them all.

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On the other hand, the FBI – and in particular its nerdy tech specialist Paul (Adam Driver) – know otherwise: Those numbers are classified military information. There follows a chase movie as Roy and Lucas spirit Alton to the site of his rendezvous with destiny while pursued by the full force of the FBI and a couple of henchmen from the cult.

This gets less exciting as Alton's special powers are gradually explained – and we see less of the nasty cult. Nichols so rightly eschews the pyrotechnics and hysteria of the sci-fi thriller – the explosions Alton causes are relatively minor; that other world to which he belongs isn't out to get us – but, in contrast to his much acclaimed 2011 film Take Shelter, the director doesn't have enough psychological drama to fill in the gaps.

Specifically, the movie weakens once Alton's mother Sarah enters the picture, not because there is anything particularly lacking in Kirsten Dunst's performance as the other concerned parent, but rather because Nichols's script does not consider the impact of her two-year separation from both the cult and her child. Similarly, for all Edgerton's work as a sympathetic tough guy, Lucas remains a convenience of plot rather than a character.

There are welcome interludes with the FBI where Nichols allows the always interesting Driver to deliver the material with a note of light irony, but otherwise it's the job of the grim-faced Shannon to push the film forward. His only relief from a single note of desperation is to be found in those occasional moments where he reveals the parental love behind his determination. There are many possible interpretations to the rich metaphor underlying this film but, as Lucas keeps suggesting Alton should be rushed to a hospital, one of the more obvious is of a child's disease, death and possible afterlife. Unfortunately, the way in which Nichols gives us a glimpse of that allegory in his film's final moments spoils his previous restraint and leaves his characters at a loss for rich reactions.

As other worlds reveal themselves, what started with a gripping premise slackens and goes limp.

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