In writer-direct Jeff Nichols‘ Midnight Special, 8-year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent) is a boy who’s never seen the sunrise. When he finally encounters it, he gets some answers about his mystefying life, but the audience never really does.
All we get is an explanation that Alton is from another world, one that’s invisible to us, but sits directly about Earth. He says these people are watching us, but why they’re watching us is never revealed. Later, when we finally see these other beings, they are disembodied light beams who’ve built beautiful, foliage accented superhighways directly above us. That’s all we find out about them, and storywise, it’s a bit of a letdown. The revelations of this film don’t turn out to be revelations at all, they’re just things that happen. It’s like the anti-Signs.
The truth about life is that everything does not “happen for a reason.” Thing happen, and we inject our reasons onto them. Alton, a visitor from another world, isn’t an enemy or a savior. He just is. Paranoia, suspicion, and religious fervor have all spun around him, but none of it was correct, all those speculations were just the fevered results of humans striving for meaning in the face of something that seems exceptional. When someone stands out, people pin all sorts of fears and hopes on them, objectifying them in the model of whatever is going on psychologically with them. The object of all these dreams and nightmares, however, is completely something else to themselves: just another being feeling their way through life the best way they know how.
At the heart of the film is the uncomfortable ambivalence we have about being watched: by the government, by “God,” by some other being that could be somewhere out in space. We want to be seen, we want to communicate, but privacy also means a great deal to us. For all our striving and posturing, we like parts of ourselves to stay separate and hidden. Privacy gives us a sense of power, of being outside the control of the unknown judgments and of anyone who might have an interest. Information collected from surveillance can be used against, but it can also be used to protect us. To hide something away, to be outside the “eye” of another, it’s a special feeling, it protects that little, precious spark of “self.”
Midnight Special is also a story about parenthood and growing up. The detail-free explanation Alton gives his parents that he has found people like himself, is like when children grow up and pursue things their parents don’t understand. The whole movie is about the blind devotion and love of parents who will never know very much about their child. Alton’s mother is bewildered by what he tells her, but accepts it, painfully relieved that he’s telling her he’s found his place in the universe, even if it’s somewhere she can never reach.
Parenthood has an inherent loneliness. As a child grows up, an inevitable vast estrangement occurs as he becomes a complicated being wholly separate from his parents. Once dependent on them even for his thoughts, the child becomes a secret person who shows parts of himself to other people that his parents will never see. Children venture out and away, even if only in their minds, and all a parent can do is wonder and worry. “I like worrying about you,” Roy tells Alton not long before his son ventures into some strange alien light.
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