He’s Not Like Us: ‘Midnight Special’s Queer Otherness

Watching Alton Meyers (Jaeden Lieberher) be introduced in Midnight Special was like being thrown back in time. We first see him cocooned in an old motel sheet; his hunched frame silhouetted by the flashlight he’s using to read the comic book balanced on his knee. At that exact moment, Alton exists, figuratively, on his own temporal plane – the type that you enter when you’re engrossed in something. He’s not living second to second but panel to panel, his whole world at that moment exists between the pages of the comic book. 

The trance is broken when Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), taps him on the shoulder. Alton crawls out of the sheet and he returns to our temporal plane. In blue goggles, heavy ear muffs and oversized coat, Alton is about as visually dissimilar as he can possibly be from Roy— who looks like he’s never read a comic in life. They are aliens to each other despite being related by blood. Roy doesn’t understand Alton, or what he is. Despite that, he’s being a good selfless father and is risking his life for Alton. He’s transporting him across the country, and they are about to get back on the road, on the run.

Why are they running, you ask? Well, they’re running in the same way that all characters run in the Spielbergian science-fiction film. We’re told via newscast that Roy spirited Alton away from a cult called The Ranch. Roy is trying to get Alton to a… place, and they need to get him there before… a time. Because reasons. All the while they have to evade the Texas Police, the FBI, and The Ranch who are all out searching for them.

You see Alton is special in the way that only people in movies can be. He has powers: he can hear radio signals, crash satellites, cause tremors, and shoot beams of light from his eyes. He’s not like us, he’s from somewhere else. If you want more explanation, sorry, but you won’t get it here. Midnight Special is not concerned with details. It’s about momentum, suspension, and propulsion, it’s a feeling. Just go with it, you don’t have to understand to get it.

While within the narrative of Midnight Special Alton is special, within the canon of Spielbergian science-fiction he finds himself surrounded by peers. This is where the precocious young boy archetype prevails, among their numbers are E.T the Extra-Terrestrial’s Elliot, The Iron Giant’s Hogarth Hughes, and Will Byers from Stranger Things. Their character composition, much like my own, is a blend of being smart-for-their-age, skinny, inept at physical activity, with a large dash of nerdiness. These are characters that I have always related to since a young age. Reality has the horrible habit of being mundane, but through them, I could experience the kind of wonder that oiled the machinery of my imagination. It’s hard to tell whether I modelled myself after them as a child or whether they were just modelled after children like me (my gut says a combination of the two) but what mattered was that they were there, and I saw myself in them.

I first watched Midnight Special when I was 20, just too far removed from my adolescence and childhood to feel a direct connection to Alton. Where before I might have related to Alton as a direct one-to-one for myself, now I viewed him more through the lens of nostalgia. It wasn’t so much that I was him as his existence reminded me of feeling like him. His introduction, hunched under motel sheets, evoked a powerful Pavlovian response from me because I too had once been that child reading by torchlight in a cave of linen. This response is not unique to Midnight Special of course. Every time I watch The Iron Giant, I find myself stunned by how much Hogarth Hughes transports me back to my childhood. His exclamation that he is not smart but “Just [does] the freaking homework” hits an especially raw nerve.

However, as the story of Midnight Special unfolded, I found that my relationship to Alton was far more complex than the initial burst of nostalgia would have me believe. Where in other Spielbergian films the young boy befriends or fights an Other (a being not of this world), in Midnight Special Alton is the Other. Of course, he doesn’t fully understand what that means yet. There’s a wonderful scene early in the film where Alton looks up from the Superman comic he’s reading and asks Roy what kryptonite is. It’s a loaded question, and Roy doesn’t quite know how to answer. Alton understands he has powers but doesn’t understand what they are or why he has them. He sees Superman, recognises in him the otherness that he too possesses, and asks what that means.

While I don’t have powers and I’ve never been hunted by the police, armed cultists or the U.S government, I have been Alton, wrapped in sheets, living in a separate world, seeing myself in a fictional character but being too young to understand why. I didn’t see myself in Superman, but Spider-Man and the X-Men. I saw myself in their difference from others. I didn’t understand why at the time but looking back now it’s obvious. It was because I’m gay.

Alton’s arc is startlingly allegorical to my own experience of realising my homosexuality. Roy is protective of Alton and afraid of his powers, which he views as something evil to be safeguarded against. In his efforts to protect Alton he nearly kills him, not out of malicious intent but because he does not know that the best way to help Alton is to stop protecting him. This can easily represent my Dad advising me on how to get a girlfriend, not knowing that the best thing he could have done was not enforced heteronormative values (don’t worry Dad it’s not your fault). 

Roy and Alton (and Lucas, Roy’s friend, who is the ‘muscle’ of the operation played by Joel Edgerton) only travel at night because sunlight gives him sensory overload, but Alton can’t understand who he is or why he has powers until he sees sunlight. That could easily be a stand-in for being both closeted and in denial about my sexuality. The Ranch is my religious school, Lucas is my, I don’t know, Uncle maybe? The comparisons could keep going but it gets to a point where it doesn’t really matter. The best allegories are simple and over-explaining is not really in the spirit of Midnight Special anyway.

So, let’s keep things simple:

Alton = Other (in the literary way that any character with traits divergent from a generic heterosexual, white, male is an Other to some extent).

‘Other = queerness (sometimes, depending on the extent of otherness and your personal reading. Alton is very ‘other’).

Therefore, Alton = queer (representationally, not literally, he’s an eight-year-old child after all. We’re only talking about the coding and subtext here).

Are we still on the same page? Excellent.

What makes Alton such an interesting surrogate for the burgeoning understanding of one’s own sexual orientation is the way that his powers, the symbolic queerness, is framed within the film. The government believes him to be a weapon, the cult members believe him to be their saviour but he’s neither of those things. Instead, he belongs to a group of beings, Observers, who co-exist with us, albeit out of sync with the rest of our temporal plane. They are hidden the seams of reality, only find-able if you know where to look. But once you see them, you realise they are everywhere. I cannot tell you how accurately those words also describe what it is like to first become aware of the existence of LGBTQ+ community, to realise that there are a group of people like you and that they have been there the whole time.

What is significant about Alton’s membership as an Observer is that it is presented as a totally neutral character trait. This is unusual for an Other. Otherness as a fictional convention is normally used as a tool to make a commentary on whatever group the Other is surrogating for. Compare, for instance, the framing of the aliens in the original 1953 War of the Worlds to the framing of the aliens of District 9. One is a surrogate for communism, the other refugees; their framing within their respective films dictates how the filmmakers believe we should the groups that they represent (negatively and positively, respectively). Through Alton’s neutral framing director Jeff Nichols saying that his brand of otherness should not be contentious, and we should not be looking to Midnight Special to inform how to react because a reaction is not necessary. The Observers and Alton exist, queer people exist, just leave them be.

The neutrality of Alton’s otherness allows the film to turn away from trying to assess him and instead allows it to assess the people whom he is surrounded by. While the film is ‘about’ Alton, it is not his film. It is a film about how people react to him. The people who try to ascribe meaning to Alton or seek to control him, the government and the cult, are framed as villains. The people who accept him for who he is and how he identifies, his family, are framed as heroes. 

There is never a moment in the film where Roy, Lucas or Sarah (Alton’s mother, who is introduced later in the film – played by Kirsten Dunst) fully understand who or what Alton truly is. After Alton sees the sun for the first time and becomes fully aware of his identity, he returns to the rest of the family to explain. “There is a world built on top of ours. People live there. I think they’re like me”, he says. Further explanation about what Alton is, his purpose, and the Observers exists in the screenplay, but that dialogue was cut from the actual film. I’m glad it was, because when the family says they “understand” what Alton is saying— even though it’s clear that they don’t really— it makes the moment more powerful. They’re not saying they understand the semantics of the situation, but that they understand his difference from them, and that they will support him regardless. 

It should be stated here that Alton is not inherently a queer character. He could just as easily represent neurodivergence, disability, any kind of otherness really. Midnight Special is very much open to interpretation, and that’s what this is: my interpretation. Much in the same way that Alton looks at a Superman comic and sees himself, I look at Alton see myself (or at least the person I was at his age). What someone else sees when they read a Superman comic or watch Midnight Special is inevitably going to be different. I gravitate towards Alton because he is a precocious boy character and their archetype is part of the complex geography that informs myself and my relationship to film. When I see him, I see myself at that age; a child who’s too young to know what sexuality or queerness is but knows that they are somehow different and is searching for it in the world around them and in the media they consume.

What makes Midnight Special such a uniquely powerful queer narrative is that Alton never has to validate his identity, he just is. His family never need to fully comprehend what his otherness means, they just support him. They help him overcome the people who try to control or oppress him. And when it’s time for Alton to join the Observers, they let him go because they know that he has to be with people like himself, even if that’s somewhere they can’t follow.

“You don’t need to worry anymore”, says Alton

“I always worry about you Alton. That’s the deal”, replies Roy.

Roy never learns what Alton is, rather he learns to accept their difference and care about him anyway. Midnight Special is not a film about explanation. 

You don’t have to understand it to get it.

Joshua Sorensen (He/Him) is a communications, politics, and literature student based in Australia. He loves writing about film, especially blockbuster’s and animation, which he believes deserve critical analysis equal to that which is considered prestige. Josh describes himself as a writer, professional human impersonator, and Paddington 2 scholar (self-appointed).