I recently had the chance to watch Midnight Special, which applies an indie film filter to the “child with mysterious powers” spec-fic staple. That’s more dismissive of the movie than I mean to be, but effective shorthand, since I’m less interested in the overt text of the piece than I am with what I find around its edges and in the spaces between it.
So we’re all up to speed, the short version of the plot goes like this: Roy (Michael Shannon) is attempting to get his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) out of the reach of the cult which raised them both — and which has currently built a religion around Alton’s otherworldly abilities. To do this, he enlists the aid of his childhood friend — and Texas state trooper — Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), moving cross country at night (and blacking out windows during the day) to avoid overloading Alton’s light-sensitive powers.
Before we go much further: I’m not convinced this is a film trying to interrogate its source materials so much as present them with a different aesthetic. However, because that aesthetic involves saying half of what you need to say, of meaningful stares and thoughtful silences, it nevertheless feeds directly into my Subtext Engine.
The obvious queer angle I could take would be turning Alton’s super powers into a metaphor for queerness, but Alton seems a clear stand in for a different Other. And an important one, though I’m reticent to delve too deeply, as there are folks far better equipped to comment on how well or poorly the film does it. Nevertheless, Alton’s abilities had a much more obvious resonance for me: he suffers intense sensory issues, issues which his caregivers argue repeatedly about how to manage, and (possibly most importantly), Alton doesn’t “get better” until he’s allowed to be involved himself, until someone listens to him about what he needs. It sounds almost beat for beat like the struggle people on the autism spectrum face daily.
Rather than in Alton and his powers, then, I found queerness in the more mundane elements at play. Namely, in Roy and Lucas. In point of fact, for much of the opening of the film, I kept trying to parse whether or not Roy and Lucas were a couple. It wasn’t until the mid-film appearance of Sarah, when Lucas finally drops exposition about how he joined this little caper, that I was certain they weren’t. And even then, well, intended or not, the film is riddled with elements that still play queer to me.
Lucas, we learn in the aforementioned infodump, was a close childhood friend of Roy’s. They were “real close for a long time. Until his parents moved him out to The Ranch.” The Ranch being the film’s name for the cult compound Roy et al are currently fleeing. Word choice is important, here: it isn’t that Roy’s family moved out there and he had to go with them, they moved Roy out there. It plays like nothing so much as a conversion therapy narrative.
Lucas makes it clear the two have had little or no contact since the move, but years later, when the life of his child is on the line, Roy goes first to Lucas. He doesn’t call, doesn’t test the waters to see how much or little he might be able to trust Lucas. He just shows up on his doorstep. And here’s the thing: Lucas isn’t the only person Roy can go to. The pair make multiple stops on their journey, getting help from at least one other former cult member besides Sarah. Roy had options. What he chose, though, was Lucas. There’s an intimate trust there which is profound given the stakes, and whatever past these two had with each other was enough to tell Roy he could count on Lucas to be worth that trust.
Then, too, there’s those meaningful, silent looks that this kind of film is known for: where a character looks at an object or a tableau and we’re meant to read what they’re thinking from the way they consider it. Lucas has more than one of those, several of them at the sight of Roy and Sarah and Alton altogether. He even expresses his regret at one point, telling Sarah that the three of them “would have made a nice family” if there had “been a way out of this.” It isn’t much of a stretch to attach a second meaning to what roadblock “this” represents.
And when it comes to the way out, when the film reaches its climax and the group has to separate to get Alton where he’s going, Lucas — who has always been the muscle, the one with the gun, the defense training, the physical endurance to shrug off shotgun impacts — stays with Roy, not Alton, for a final, rousing chase. Not to drive the car, mind you. Roy’s doing that. Not to shoot at the military; Alton’s made clear that the military has orders only to fire if fired upon. Nevertheless, he’s at Roy’s side.
He’s there to see Alton’s “world built on top of ours” with Roy, and when it’s all said and done and he’s under interrogation by the government, who are none to happy with his responses, he has only one story to tell “because it’s the truth.”
This is obviously a lot of me building a secondary story out of spaces and looks and inference. Sure, great, you might think, we can add it to a Buzzfeed list of wacky fan theories next to the secret origin of Jesse from Toy Story. But certainly there are numerous films where no one has to lay out arguments for a queer presence. Surely we’ve moved past the point where we have to decode film to find its underlying queerness, where writers sneak in subtext by lying to the male lead about intent and writing around it.
Except sometimes maybe we still do. Because there are still young people who grow up in small or large towns, whose communities don’t like talking about this kind of thing. Young people who, if they get too close, if they insist on telling a story because it’s the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes the establishment, wind up shipped off for re-programming. People who have to live their lives at night, who have to worry about what they say and who they say it to because doing the wrong thing in the harsh light of day still risks destroying everything. Maybe people from states that continue to actively debate their rights.
Maybe for those people, we still need to build a world on top of the one that everyone else sees. A world with people like them. Because, as Alton says, “They watch us. They’ve been watching us for a very long time.”