Radical Divergence: Engaging with Faith in Midnight Special

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Within the comforting protection of an old sheet, the child sits, flashlight in hand, comics balanced across knees. The enveloping cloth is soft and smells faintly of soap. Heavy earphones block sound and nothing exists except the world of the story. The spell remains unbroken until the sheet is pulled away, ceaseless reality returning.

Watching Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) be revealed in the opening scene of Midnight Special was like stepping back in time. I had the same ritual every night (without his goggles) until my Mother invariably found me and made me go to bed. While I was lucky enough to not have the U.S. government or a group of armed cultists searching for me, I did and do have a great deal in common with the central character in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special.

Mind you, I’m not saying I came from another dimension. But I am very much an alien among you. I am Neurodivergent, or more specifically, I am Autistic.

Divergence: At the turn of the century, clergymen began to speak out against moving pictures. They claimed such things promoted “immorality”, the same old saw used for everything fun. In truth, churches, both Protestant and Catholic, were seeing reduced numbers. The popularity of the new pastime might’ve made a very convenient scapegoat…

I was and am a reader. The restrictions my parents placed on television and movie watching didn’t apply to literature. Or at least the books they didn’t want me reading were easier to sneak. But even with the severe limitations of what we were allowed to view, I quickly fell in love with the movies. There, on the screen before me, were all the pictures that filled my head when I read or daydreamt.

Like Alton I was an unusual and gifted child (even without my own glowing eyelight). Hyperlexic, I’d taught myself to read by the age of three and quickly consumed every book in our house. My parents were of course surprised by this. Particularly as before that all I could seem to do was rock back and forth and bang my head against the wall when the world got too overwhelming. But I couldn’t tell them why I was doing these things so they formed their own conclusions.

I was thought to need religion. Surely that would make me better. Or at least better behaved. I never cottoned to the church but I did have a healthy respect for the power it wielded in our small, rural community. So seeing the Ranch—the compound the cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) lives on in the film—made me identify with Alton even more.

Growing up “different” in a tight knit community can make you a target. It can also give you a kind of otherworldliness. In Alton’s case, his unique gifts lead the people to believe he is their savior. When Roy (Michael Shannon) takes Alton and flees (the Ranch members have begun stockpiling firearms for the judgment day), the leader orders that the boy be found before the designated time of Ascension. Which just happens to be in four days. He charges one of his deacons with bringing him back. “God has laid a heavy burden on you,” Calvin Meyer tells the man. But, as the extent of the people’s faith in the boy is revealed, one wonders if the actual burden hasn’t been laid on the 8-year-old Alton.

Divergence: Perhaps if less people had been at the movies, they would’ve heard and heeded the clergy’s warnings. It was in the 1920s that movie houses became movie palaces and began to take on the features of temples. Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. is perhaps the most famous example of this…

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ experiment in science fiction. He gives out only the scantest information and leaves you to fill in the rest. It’s a smart move, much like Spielberg choosing to leave the final UFO design up to the viewer’s imagination in Close Encounters. With such sparse dialogue, it’s up to the character’s actions to fill in the gaps for motivations. This is not a film about talking, it’s about doing.

From the opening, we are carted along with Roy and Alton, as well as their protector, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), as they try to make it to the coordinates Alton has identified by listening to secret government transmissions. As they travel further, the situation becomes more dire, not only because of those pursuing them, but because Alton himself grows weaker and less able to control himself each time he’s called upon to use his powers.

By the time the trio arrives to reunite Alton with his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the boy is so clearly ill that Lucas calls for him to be taken to hospital. The idea is rejected out of hand. “He’ll make it,” Roy insists and his conviction makes you so badly want to believe it’s true.

It’s within this family structure that the film’s relationship to faith reveals itself most fully. They are a Holy Family and as such will travel the path through the valley and shadows until Sarah (a stand in for the Virgin Mary) can witness Alton’s Ascension into paradise. It’s a lovely story, with many fine threads that weave into an unbreakable cord between them.

Roy had been taken to The Ranch by his parents. He watched as another man raised his child and attempted to make him a messiah. Roy says that the only thing he’s ever believed in was Alton, but I disagree. He had faith, or at least a hope, that Lucas would not give them up when approached for help. He trusted his wife to give them shelter and to help take Alton along the final steps of his journey.

Sarah could be said to have “broken faith” when she left Roy and Alton. But she trusted her husband to do what was right for the boy since she couldn’t bear to see what was being done with him. She continues to put her faith, implicitly, in Roy and in her son’s destiny.

Lucas, an unofficial member of the family, is left out of hugs but is not merely an outsider. Lucas plays the crucial, if sometimes infuriating, role of Doubter (just as Peter did). He questions the family’s blind devotion and loses his trust in them at one point, but a newly recharged Alton appears and reminds him that his faith wasn’t misplaced.

Divergence: All signs pointed to the movies being America’s new religion. With the birth of the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s, the film industry began policing the morals of movies for the good of the public. The code was written by a Jesuit priest and a Catholic layman after a series of scandals involving Hollywood stars. As one might expect, it set a heavily religious tone in deciding what could and couldn’t be said or depicted on film for over 30 years…

Autism in film is not new although very few movies acknowledge their characters as neurodivergent. It seems easier to sideline us as aliens. From Klaatu to Spock and now Alton, science fiction has a long history of taking the Other and holding them up as bastions of pure good or pure evil. There seems to be no room for nuance. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the peaceful, hyper-intelligent aliens that stood before humanity asking them to change were stand-ins for people like me. The ones who lived in their heads, and in books or movies, far more than the real world.

Alton is no different in that regard. He occupies this world only until he can go where he belongs. If Nichols had made this film as a straight drama, I can easily see the events morphing into a family fighting for a diagnosis for their child. Society and bureaucracy might be against them but they keep their faith and keep trying. The mother and father want what’s best for their son, knowing his gifts can be developed to benefit himself and the world, even though they know life won’t be the same afterward. The mother’s decision to let her son go with the strangers who can help him is difficult one, but ultimately the right one.

Alton himself acknowledges this aspect when he comes back from meeting the sun for the first time. He says he thinks he knows what he is now. It would be easy to have him say that after meeting with a psychologist for diagnosis as well. And it is his acceptance of himself that allows him greater control over his powers. Alton has had faith in his Father and his family. Now, he has faith in himself as well.

Throughout the film, Alton never behaves as a child might be expected to. Instead, he often carries himself with greater composure than the adults. It is only when he’s back with his mother and father that we ever see him play. This holds with Autism as well; we are called “little professors” to describe not only the way we think but also our behavior.

Alton is seen multiple times in the film with heavy soundproof headphones on and only rarely removes his goggles. The neurodivergent often have sensory processing disorders that can make the world too loud, too bright, too rough against our skin. Alton is no exception here either.

The closer he gets to his Ascension, the more Alton comes to understand himself. He is not meant for the world of the mundane. He is neither weapon, as the government believes, or savior, as the cult members do. Instead, he belongs to a group of Observers, beings who have been watching the world for a very long time. They exist just out of sync with this dimension. I cannot tell you how familiar that sounds.

Autistics so often describe themselves as feeling as if they are aliens that it has become part of our culture. Temple Grandin (arguably the most notable Autistic alive) was described in an Oliver Sacks essay as “an anthropologist on Mars.” One of the earliest web forums for the neurodivergent is called WrongPlanet. Whether or not Nichols was aware of it, he has tapped into something very real.

Divergence: Around 60 million people went to see films weekly during the Great Depression. The chance to escape reality must’ve seemed worth the cost. People continue to use film as a kind of lifeline, particularly those at the fringes of society. For us, movies became a kind of language all their own…

We look to film as a means of escape, catharsis. It can lift our mood or plunge us into despair. Bad ones infuriate us at the loss of time and so-bad-they’re-good ones become cult classics. We put faith in film. Whatever else it might do, film affects us, be that on a personal or even a societal level.

Art, in any instance, can challenge our beliefs. It can help to change attitudes and lessen stigma. Our society is quick to place blame on the parents of “special needs” children. They are pitied or vilified for the child’s problem behavior if they are unable to “control” them and they are scorned if they send them away to schools able to meet their needs. It’s a double bind and no one, particularly the child, ever wins.

The parents’ decision to let Alton be who he is, and to let him leave, has a weighty significance. Too often those of us labeled Other are blamed for our own conditions. We’re subject to behavior therapies that can be analogous to torture in an effort to make us appear Normal. We are shamed for not being able to do what others feel should be easy. But Roy and Sarah don’t shame Alton for being different. Rather, they accept their son, even when they cannot understand him.

That is truly a radical divergence from the norm. And by doing so, they allow for a better future for their child.

That is something that impacts me greatly. All these many years later, I still turn to movies to find connections with people both on and off the screen. During the worst times of your life, you can turn on an old favorite movie and feel, if not better, then at least a bit of comfort. Faith was always described to me as the evidence of things unseen. I think it can more accurately be called trust. In an ever shifting world, there are fewer and fewer things to place our faith in. But for those of us who live just out of sync with the rest, film can be a constant. Watch that old favorite again and again and it will not change. Dialogue you can quote verbatim remains unaltered, as does the appearance of the characters. You can trust film or books or paintings to stay faithful even when everything else around you is devolving into chaos.

I admit that Midnight Special is not a film for everyone. It doesn’t leave you laughing or sobbing. It leaves you to ponder the events and draw your own conclusions. Perhaps its final message is a simple reminder: you’ve got to have faith. Although I wouldn’t mind having that eyelight as well. It’s just gotta make reading under the covers a bit easier.