Throughout time, highly gifted children have posed a challenge to their parents, and this is especially true if, like Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) in “Midnight Special,” he’s blessed (or cursed) with superpowers, such as the ability to manipulate light beams with his vision, the knowledge of a second world superimposed on our own, and a healthy dose of clairvoyance for good measure. Oh, and he can also hear foreign language stations on the car radio before it’s even switched on, because, why not? The movie jumps right into the action from the start with Jaeden’s dad, (Michael Shannon), preparing with his kid to go on the run. Meanwhile, we hear from a TV news station that the boy is actually wanted by the FBI, so we know things are dire. Michael also enlists his old friend (Joel Edgerton) to help protect the boy, though it’s not entirely clear where their destination is, and they set off on a road trip.
Of course, we quickly realize from all this that “Midnight Special,” is not going to portray the typical movie road trip, in which the characters get comically lost, damage the car and meet a host of oddballs as they struggle toward their destination. No, the tone remains one of rather dour seriousness from start to finish, and though it’s easy to figure out what’s going on, it’s nevertheless difficult to see because almost the whole movie is shot in darkness or semi-darkness. There’s a good reason for this, as Jaeden’s character has an extreme light sensitivity, but there were a few times when the screen went dark, and I wondered if my TV had somehow switched itself off. Anyway, as Jaeden and co. are fleeing down the highway in pitch blackness, the FBI is paying a visit to a cult on a farm, which until recently, was Jaeden’s home. Though Jaeden was regarded as blessed by the cult, the government believes they have a sinister motive and are using the boy in a nefarious way. But the truth is a lot more dramatic than that; basically (spoiler), Jaeden really needs to phone home. Kirsten Dunst plays his concerned mom, who eventually joins them on the road trip, and Adam Driver plays an agent who winds up coming closer to the truth about Jaeden than any of his colleagues.
Basically, “Midnight Special” is “E.T.” without the endearing titular character, although I first saw “E.T.” when I was a kid, so maybe I’m biased and looking back through a golden haze of nostalgia. This is the kind of movie you feel bad for hoping for some humor, no matter how dark, because it’s clearly meant to tackle big issues. The cast all does a decent job, but it is not exactly the kind of movie that doesn’t mind poking fun at itself, no matter how subtle. Also, there is the semi-darkness issue, which irritated me, but your mileage may vary.