Okay, I wasn't being very clear... My problem isn't that there were too many characters. It's that Dunst, Edgerton, and Shannon have virtually the same point of view. They all want the same thing, they have the same goal (to help Alton), and they all go about it in the same way. I'm talking about the ACTIONS of the characters. Motivation can come from all sorts of different sources. It doesn't justify the presence of a character for an entire movie. Combining them into one character is a half-baked idea on my part, but I was just trying to illustrate the point that the three of them are so similar. There's no conflict. Conflict = drama, right?
Let's look at Star Wars, another movie where a group of characters spend a lot of time running away from a threatening government-type organization. Luke wants adventure. Obi Wan wants to train Luke, pass along the Force. Han wants money. Leia wants the get the Death Star plans to the Rebellion, defeat the Empire. I'm not saying Star Wars and Midnight Special are comparable in every way, but these are just the nuts and bolts of illustrating compelling characters and creating drama.
Also, when the characters are faced with a problem they must overcome in Midnight Special, the characters don't actually have to DO much of anything. Again, I'm talking about ACTION. If every time something that is established as a problem is solved without the characters having to actually take any action, the stakes are lost. There was never any real threat in the first place. Think about all that our heroes DO to accomplish their goals in Star Wars. They are constantly fighting off enemies, sneaking around, going into enemy territory, etc. And they're arguing the entire time about the best way to go about it because they all have separate goals and points of view. And each character takes ACTION the drive the plot forward. Each character is crucial to accomplishing their ultimate goals. And all the while we see how dangerous their opponents are because the characters have to really challenge themselves mentally and physically to just barely survive (and some don't survive!). And not only does this drive the plot forward, it illustrates new things about the characters.
So back to Midnight Special... Obstacles are overcome without the characters ever actually having to take any action except maybe drive fast or put cardboard over some windows. When the worst possible thing that could happen happens, when Alton is taken, what actions do our heroes have to take to overcome this adversity? Nothing. Shannon almost killing himself doesn't contribute to him getting Alton back. And Alton uses powers that, correct me if I'm wrong, he already had. So the big bad government posed little threat from the beginning. This lowers the stakes of the movie. And the stakes should be building throughout the movie.
So, in conclusion: stakes, conflict, drama... where is it? I understand that there are a lot of nuances and interesting little character dynamics present and I think the tone is great. Nichols nailed that stuff. But I'm talking basic big picture, nuts and bolts stuff. Do you understand what I mean? What am I missing?