'Midnight Sun' fails as fast as you can say xeroderma pigmentosum
Anyone who spends five seconds researching xeroderma pigmentosum will see that the rare genetic disorder often has a visible physical impact on those affected. Those who suffer are, in short, allergic to the sun, and such skin sensitivity does not remain invisible. While narrative features don’t have to emulate documentaries, it seems safe to assume that anyone who suffers from the disorder, knows someone who does or just has a reasonable sense of propriety would find it absurd to exploit it for a flavorless teen drama without any disfigurement or discomfort beyond a slight dose of paleness.
In “Midnight Sun,” that eventually, mildly pale teenager is Katie (Bella Thorne), who, it seems, has ceased her protesting about an inability to leave the house but harbors no resentment toward her widower dad (Rob Riggle) for sheltering her. Actually, the movie is a bit unclear on Katie’s level of freedom in her teen years, as dad suggests he has kept her sequestered but Katie seemingly has been allowed to spend enough time at their local Washington state train station to make friends with the evening ticket clerk (Norm Misura). Apparently she never rebelled or did anything the majority of high school students only allowed to emerge into society at night would; instead, she stayed indoors all day, everyday, remaining in questionably good shape despite a total lack of exercise while gazing out the window at Charlie (Patrick Schwarzenegger), the guy she has loved for years while knowing nothing about him that cannot be observed during a few seconds of skateboarding. That broad, uninformed swooning is not so uncommon for a young crush, but the film targets only the 12 and under set by insisting that Charlie really is the sweetly bland guy of Katie’s window-pane dreams.
Ultra-popular yet evidently party-averse, Charlie falls for Katie when he stumbles upon her singing at the train station. (When she runs off and leaves behind her notebook without giving him her name, it is a Cinderella reference too blunt to be accidental. This is on top of Katie’s Rapunzel-like status in her second-floor suburban tower. It would be nice if movies stopped trying to make young girls aspire to be princesses.) For what it is worth, Thorne is not as charming as Emma Stone but also not as over-the-top as Amanda Bynes in depicting Katie’s awkwardness, which might be endearing if it was possible to ignore how little thought Charlie gives to his new girlfriend having no experience in civilization. Luckily, the two just want to have some barely PG-13-level fun, and he does not ask why she is always busy during the day. He, like, also cannot believe they grew up in the same town and never met. Deception is so much simpler when dating someone who asks no questions.
Beneath the treacly romance is a sliver of a story about a kid who feels like the world is not for her. “I’ve waited a whole life to feel this,” Katie says to Charlie toward the end of the movie, which takes a disappointing turn toward the tragic while remaining far, far less excruciating and manipulative than the similar and much worse-acted “Everything, Everything.” In isolated moments and through the right lens of tween hopefulness, “Midnight Sun” is a touch romantic. And as far as reasons for lying go (considering the movie would be very different or not exist at all if Charlie knew about Katie’s condition sooner), Katie’s desire not to be defined by her illness is plenty valid. She is a person first and wants to be seen that way.
These are mostly theoretical wins, though. Directed by a veteran of Ashley Tisdale music videos, “Midnight Sun” plays like Nicholas Sparks’ innocent kid sister, where the world is defined by piers and acoustic guitars and death’s ever-looming interruption of love. “You can’t really read a song, right?” Charlie asks when Katie questions what he thought of the material he read in her book. Not only can the quality of lyrics absolutely be analyzed but it would have been something if a stupid line like that made Katie have a more nuanced opinion of this very nice and quite generic dude. (Charlie losing a swimming scholarship following a drunken injury is resolved as harmlessly as it is presented, and with the same intelligence afforded to suggesting Katie’s terrible music is good.) In addition, the movie opens with Katie sharing a recurring dream of her mom singing to her, but “Midnight Sun” mostly uses this young girl losing her mother as a device, rather than a way to develop the character’s life experience. It does, however, allow for a scene of Katie making an online dating profile for her dad after she determines she will not be around much longer and does not want him to be alone.
Even if xeroderma pigmentosum really can go from benign to terminal as quickly as “Midnight Sun” suggests, the total refusal to present the physical impacts of the illness renders the film disingenuous and shallow. Would this love exist if Katie’s face was marked by the scars of her condition? No one needs another “Beastly,” but next time a story about a serious, disfiguring affliction might go beyond surface-level beauty.
This review will be published in next year's edition of Magill's Cinema Annual. Click here to purchase copies of collections from previous years.