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'Midnight Special' subverts the superhero-industrial complex 

It's the latest from Little Rock's Jeff Nichols.

click to enlarge SLOW BURN: Michael Shannon delivers another strong performance for Jeff Nichols in “Midnight Special."
  • SLOW BURN: Michael Shannon delivers another strong performance for Jeff Nichols in “Midnight Special."

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.

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Speaking of Jeff Nichols, "Midnight Special"

  • A new movie festival planned for Little Rock, led by Jeff Nichols

    March 22, 2017
    IndieWire breaks news long whispered downtown — a more ambitious successor to the Little Rock Film Festival is in the works, with  backing from writer/director Jeff Nichols, a Little Rock native. His "Loving" has won wide acclaim recently. /more/
  • Negga earns Oscar nomination for 'Loving'

    January 24, 2017
    Ruth Negga received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Mildred Loving in “Loving,” the latest film from Little Rock director Jeff Nichols. /more/
  • Jeff Nichols, 'Loving' and the space in between

    November 17, 2016
    In a strictly technical sense, "Loving" is about the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned anti-miscegenation laws, removing restrictions against interracial marriage in the United States. That's a little misleading, though, at least insofar as that description conjures up images of courtroom drama. Nichols strips all that away, making "Loving" exactly what its name implies: a love story. /more/
  • 'Loving' screening raises $10,000 for Tiger Foundation benefitting Central High

    November 15, 2016
    Little Rock native Jeff Nichols brought his new acclaimed film "Loving" to the Ron Robinson Theater last night ahead of the movie's wide release on Friday. The ticketed event raised $10,000 for the Tiger Foundation, a nonprofit that benefits Central High School, Nichols' alma mater. /more/
  • Jeff Nichols returns to Little Rock for Arkansas premiere of "Loving"

    October 24, 2016
    Director Jeff Nichols returns to his hometown Monday, Nov. 14, for the first Arkansas screening of “Loving,” Nichols’ depiction of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose civil rights case resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s invalidation of all race-based legal restrictions on marriage. /more/
  • The trailer for Jeff Nichols' 'Loving' looks great

    July 14, 2016
    The latest from Little Rock's Jeff Nichols hits theaters Nov. 4. It's Nichols' telling of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage led to the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, which ended laws preventing interracial marriage. Ruth Negga's performance as Mildred Loving generated Oscar talk after the film debuted at Cannes. /more/
  • Filmmaker Jeff Nichols shows 'Loving' at Cannes. Good timing.

    May 16, 2016
    Here's Vox with a report on the premier at Cannes of "Loving," the feature film treatment by Little Rock native Jeff Nichols of the case that brought an end to laws against interracial marriage. The theme has many parallels in current times, which Nichols talks about. /more/
  • Jeff Nichols' "Loving" up for Cannes Film Festival Award

    May 11, 2016
    Jeff Nichols' "Loving," a film depicting the landmark civil rights case that overturned anti-miscegenation laws, is up for the Palme d'Or at this year's Canne Film Festival. /more/
  • Nichols' 'Loving' to compete for Palme d'Or at Cannes

    April 19, 2016
    Little Rock-born film director Jeff Nichols, whose stature as a young auteur has been steadily growing with the success of films like 2012's "Mud" and his most recent sci-fi offering "Midnight Special," will get another chance to put a very big feather in his cap next month. His latest film, "Loving," has been selected to compete for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in France. /more/
  • Behind the scenes of Jeff Nichols' 'Midnight Special'

    March 4, 2016
    WIRED magazine has a great new profile of Little Rock filmmaker Jeff Nichols out this month, written by the always-perceptive Amy Wallace. Aside from being probably the best and most comprehensive piece written on Nichols to date, it takes us behind the scenes of his forthcoming "Midnight Special" and even offers new insights on previous works, from "Shotgun Stories" ("He wrote the script in his father’s furniture store, “surrounded by mattresses,” and edited it in his laundry room") to "Mud." /more/
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