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Out of this world: “Midnight Special” suggests opposing cults and child abuse without conforming to u.$. society

Midnight Special movie poster

“Midnight Special”
Dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher
Warner Bros. Pictures
R, 111 minutes, 2016

Spoiler alert

This is an anti-cult movie that isn’t blatantly pro-u.$.-government. Its not-of-this-world theme, chase, government agent characters, and a child who reads comics and almost dies before recovering, reminded this reviewer of “E.T.” (1982). In “Midnight Special,” the child emself is hounded by government personnel, who want to control, hold and study em. “Midnight” may do more than “E.T.” to raise ideas about children’s oppression and the difficulty of achieving liberation from abuse and other oppression, as a group or individual, within the present societal framework in the West. The movie has the evocativeness of a dream, and its lack of clarity in some respects may help it go beyond the confines of convention in some viewers’ heads.

A father takes back eir young son and together they leave a cult that is reminiscent of media portrayals of a fundamentalist Mormon church. Actually, they are already on the road at the beginning of the movie; they are introduced by a news report of a kidnapping. A friend outside the cult helps move the boy to safety. The cult believes the child, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), is God’s mouthpiece and will soon play a critical role in their salvation. The real twist is that Alton actually does seem to be some kind of boy prophet at first. Alton is able to parrot what’s on a Spanish-language radio channel as if eir body were a radio, and is even-more miraculously able to produce information from encrypted satellite transmissions. This gets the attention of the NSA. The information, and numbers indicating Alton is able to foretell locations and times of events in eir own life, have ended up in sermons. Alton also seems to have psychokinetic ability. Evidently, though agreeing the information Alton provides (helplessly it seems) includes coordinates of some importance, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) disagrees with the cult’s interpretation and believes Alton is meant for something important that has nothing to do with the cult or doesn’t include it. What exactly Roy doesn’t know. Roy regrets letting a cult leader adopt Alton. Alton’s mother who used to be in the cult, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), also helps Alton reach a point on the map that seems to be significant, a final destination. The cult has contributed to problems in the family’s relationships. The viewer may think of Christian and secular cults in the real world, or the millions of children with divorced parents, common in countries with both strong Christian history and strong atheistic influence.

The idea an eight-year-old would have a conflict with the NSA and u.$. government involving a satellite, a drone and a helicopter will be ridiculous to most though it happens more often in less direct and spectacular ways in the Third World. And if this were told as a true story along with Alton’s supernatural abilities, it would be crazier than what most cults say. It’s hard to see the science part of this sci-fi movie. There is no attempt to explain many things in terms of anything that could be possible in the future, such as Alton’s sudden spooky ability to control what’s on an electronic display relative to what a camera is supposed to be seeing. Alton is able to beam light from eir eyes to another persyn’s eyes, which is apparently like having a vision and weakens Alton physically. Alton has a sensitivity to sunlight which eventually goes away abruptly.

There are a few things that make me think “Midnight Special” is trying to say something about children’s oppression. Alton is obviously white, which helps clarify we aren’t dealing with “race” (nation) oppression. One of the main conflicts is with a cult with an appearance many will perceive as especially patriarchal. In one scene, a former cult member whom Roy and Sarah trusted gets Alton to emit light when the two are alone in a room and Alton is lying on a bed. Since Alton’s use of eir powers hurts Alton and endangers Alton by revealing eir destination unnecessarily, it is abuse. Blinding light doesn’t shoot from anyone’s eyes in the real world so sexual abuse (which has future consequences but doesn’t necessarily involve immediate injury or pain as Alton may experience) comes to mind. Similar to abusers who claim to behave impulsively, the ex-cult member suggests ey couldn’t help it. It looks like more than one persyn had hurt Alton at “the Ranch” through this light beam experience.

Children normally experience having to be with adults they don’t necessarily want to be around to varying degree, being present at activities they don’t enjoy as much as adults do, or being excluded from adult-dominated spaces with few places to go. One place many children in imperialist countries can retreat to is virtual reality. Being able to play video games for hours on a console or tablet could indicate privilege, but it could also indicate a lack of other opportunities. Where the NSA comes in is that children end up sending out persynal information when they use social media and many of the games that are popular these days. Most children will grow out of childhood, but as adults may still experience the effects of, or remember, things they experienced as children. Apart from general ongoing consequences of digital ghettoization, even young children and teenagers particularly outside the united $tates can end up experiencing or being subjected to u.$. spying in connection with electronic communications. The NSA is involved with children on an additional level in that the NSA is part of an imperialist state that is in very real ways standing in the way of eliminating the systemic foundation and forces contributing to child abuse and other oppression.

It seems very difficult to represent the oppression of children as a group in a movie so any content that might be suggestive could be significant. Notably, Alton doesn’t end up with any family in the end. Sarah realizes before Roy does that Alton may have to leave them permanently and accepts that. The idea of going back to the cult (what there is for an adult to miss about it) is raised weakly in a discussion with ex-cult-member Elden, but never really considered, and there is no conversation about going to some mainstream church though there is arguably some Christian imagery in “Midnight Special.” One disobedient individual NSA employee helps (and after doing so is still distrusted), but the government is portrayed as an obstacle to a nebulous goal. It is interested in Alton as a potential weapon. (The young Paul Sevier NSA character played by Adam Driver of the series “Girls” and “The Force Awakens” may have some appeal to the “science” -minded, but I found the character to be dislikeable persynally. It seems a typical Amerikan who goes into the intelligence services today might be half-assed about it, but for a self-absorbed reason. Paul is sympathetic, but ey is also curious as one might expect a spy to be in the circumstances.) Roy’s old friend and state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton) helps but ends up having to fight the police, and it is not that Lucas belongs to an oppressed group. “Midnight” isn’t pro-cult, but it isn’t clearly pro-federal-government either. The movie suggests children’s needing to reach a destination that is not any typical family, without the help of any agency or institution. The existing agencies and institutions are obstacles. Alton reaches eir destination—a futuristic parallel world—without having become an adult.

Despite some change in attitude and parenting style, many things in the cultures and structures of the West pose problems for children socially to the extent that the Western model is an obstacle to progress. At the same time, there are aspects of family, religious and other culture in the Third World that are relatively useful at this time for building toward a world without children’s oppression. So although an anti-cult movie could easily be a nationalist or pro-government movie in a u.$. context, the idea that the united $tates has nothing to offer Alton worth staying for is a welcome one. ◊

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