Maybe the only line in “Midnight Special” that clunks comes from the child at the center of the story. He’s with his dad (Michael Shannon) and a family friend (Joel Edgerton) on the run from … well, pretty much everybody: his former religious sect, the FBI, satellite surveillance. The boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), reading a comic by flashlight in the back seat, pipes up to ask: “What’s Kryptonite?”
Given a couple of beats, the adults discuss how sheltered Alton has been, but at first it rings as an indulgent shot across the bow of, oh, maybe say, “Batman vs. Superman,” playing down the cineplex hall. The premise of “Midnight Special” holds that this little boy has some sort of extraordinary powers that allow him to do unfathomable things. He can pull radio signals out of the air in real time, or pick up encrypted government transmissions, and he dabbles in some clumsy telekinesis. The allusion to Kal El is apt; it’s as if this kid fell to Earth from another planet, though far from being super, he’s sickly, struggling and in big trouble.
But rather than churn out a movie about ass-kickings and city-crushings, director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols infuses “Midnight Special” with suspense and heart that blossom into something that defies and transcends genre. Throughout this stealthy sci-fi tour de force, he subverts the superhero-industrial complex to build a true-seeming fantasy full of wonder, faith, sacrifice and pathos. It’s as if someone rebooted an ’80s Spielberg flick as Southern noir, and crafted it without a hint of cynicism. (Overheard in the theater after a recent screening: “That was like if ‘Tomorrowland’ had been a great movie.”)
Frankly, too, it should launch Nichols onto the short list for whatever next project Marvel needs to staff. Now four feature-length movies into his career, the Little Rock-born director has proved he has the chops to guide A-list talent in the pursuit of a genuine vision. Adam Driver (lately of “Star Wars”) also appears, as a quietly funny straight-man NSA analyst, as does Kirsten Dunst (of “Spider-Man” flicks), as Alton’s harried mother. Twice now, here and in their mutual breakthrough “Take Shelter,” Nichols has gotten more out of a quietly relentless Michael Shannon than Zack Snyder did cranking Shannon up to 11 as Zod in the latest Superman flicks. No doubt Kevin Feige, the mastermind of Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe, has penciled in Nichols’ name on whatever wish list of up-and-comers he’s vetting for “Captain Marvel” and “The Inhumans,” both due in 2019. For what it’s worth, too: As in “Mud,” his previous feature, Nichols proves here that he can direct child actors as well as anyone working.
These days superhero flicks tend to fail because they don’t know what to do with ambiguity, forgetting that most regular people, living regular-people lives, are awash in it — not knowing whether something’s right or wrong is such a natural state that it has become a second uncanny valley for storytellers to hurdle. The slow burn of “Midnight Special” as an extended road-trip getaway picture, hurtling toward a mysterious destination, gives the movie room to crack its knuckles, pour a drink and be exciting without being hubristic. What the hell does a father do, anyway, when his son seems like a cross between an interdimensional traveler, a prophet and an angel? Who knows whether it’s the right thing, but this miracle tween has in mind some coordinates a few states over, along with a very specific time, so you’d better get him there, come helicopters or high water. Even when the kid says everything’s going to be OK, there’s plenty of room for doubt. But that’s sort of the great thing about not knowing quite what to think — you have to navigate by feel. And “Midnight Special” lands squarely in the gut.