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Midnight Special

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Jeff Nichols, writer-director of down-to-earth dramas “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud,” uses his latest, “Midnight Special,” to branch out into science-fiction. Not the flashy, expensive kind, mind you, but the Jeff Nichols kind: thoughtful, meticulously composed, set on a personal scale, and starring Michael Shannon.

Shannon (who’s been in all of Nichols’ films) plays Roy Tomlin, a Texan fundamentalist cult member whose light-sensitive 8-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has certain awe- and reverence-inspiring powers of a Spielbergian nature. The sect (pastored by Sam Shepard) treats the boy’s spouts of gibberish as scripture, and the NSA (represented by an amusing Adam Driver as a dogged, curious agent) wants to know how this gibberish contains government secrets. Roy, faithful friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), want nothing but Alton’s safety as the date of a foretold spiritual event approaches. The lengths to which they will go to preserve Alton’s safety are a testament to their love for, and faith in, him.

Once it’s all laid out, the story is simple, almost to a fault — don’t expect to be surprised by much. But Nichols reveals details skillfully, weaving an intriguing narrative out of an ordinary one. (One example: a character’s occupation, which might normally be part of the exposition, isn’t mentioned until mentioning it will have some dramatic weight.) This deft storytelling, accompanied by sincere, plainspoken performances, all beautifully captured by cinematographer Adam Stone, lets Nichols harvest much wonderment from his ordinary, extraordinary little tale.

B (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, brief violence.)