Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ tale of a boy with special powers has great performances and a lived-in, rural feel

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“Midnight Special” is something special.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols unspools his tale of a boy with supernatural powers slowly, laying out story elements like bread crumbs and inviting viewers to follow his trail. When he finally arrives at his destination it brings up more questions than answers, but there’s no doubt the ride there is an enthralling one.

The Arkansas-born Nichols also made “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” and now with “Midnight Special,” he’s proven he’s as at home in the American rural South as Scorsese is on the streets of New York. “Midnight Special” hurls him headfirst into the realm of science fiction, but this journey through Texas, Louisiana and Florida retains the real, lived-in feel of a well-worn dusty dirt road. The guy knows his terrain.

“Midnight Special” opens with an Amber Alert and the search for Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy who has gone missing. When we meet Alton, he’s hiding underneath a bed sheet inside a run-down motel room, the windows covered in cardboard, black tape over the peep hole in the door. Along with him in the room are two men, Roy (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton).

Roy and Lucas make sure the coast is clear and shuffle off with the child, who wears blue swimming goggles over his eyes and noise canceling headphones over his ears. They dart off into the night, cutting the headlights on their beater car and using night vision headsets to illuminate the road. When they come across a state trooper, they don’t hesitate to shoot. “He’s more important,” Roy says of Alton, who we learn is his son.

Alton is indeed important, for reasons that make him a savior figure in this spiritual allegory. He is able to detect radio waves with his brain and shoot blinding beams of light from his eyes, powers that he cannot fully grasp. Among those looking for him are members of a religious cult (headed up by Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer) and an analyst with the National Security Agency (Adam Driver).

Roy and Lucas are attempting to deliver Alton to a specific location and time where a major event is slated to occur. Along the way they meet up with Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who aids in the trek as Alton’s powers weaken.

To say much more — and that’s not saying much — is to do the story a disservice, and Nichols rolls out plenty of surprises along the way, keeping the action taut and grounded even as he deals with otherworldy elements.

At one point he introduces a small bit of dialogue about Superman, and parallels can be drawn between “Midnight Special” and a superhero origin story, if superhero origin stories didn’t follow such clear-cut paths. Think of this as a fresh spin on a familiar tale.

Nichols invests in his characters and he gets uniformly excellent performances from his cast, especially the cautiously reserved Edgerton and the charismatic, sympathetic Driver.

Shannon, who’s used to playing characters that are fraying at the edges, is more sturdy here, and he gives a quiet, low-simmer edge to his Roy. As Alton, Lieberher is a believable mix of innocence, vulnerability and strength.

“Midnight Special” builds to an out-there climax that doesn’t wholly satisfy, but Nichols has earned the right to take big leaps. Even if he doesn’t stick the landing, it’s a thrill watching him try. He, too, is something special.

agraham@detroitnews.com

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‘Midnight Special’

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for some violence and action

Running time: 111 minutes

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