Wide Awake (1998)

13 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is there a God? If so, why do so many bad things happen to good people?

Those are the questions that always come up from skeptics who either test the concept of organized religion or simply want answers. In the case of 10-year-old Catholic student Joshua A. Beal in the comedy-drama “Wide Awake,” he just wants to know if his late grandfather, who died of bone marrow cancer, is okay. He wants to know if Heaven, the afterlife, and above all, God, are for real.

And he’s serious about it too. Joshua (played by Joseph Cross) is a smart kid who spends his entire fifth-grade year at a Catholic boys’ school on a mission to find truth in what he believes and what he wants to believe. Does he find what he’s looking for? Well, that’s a little difficult to answer. And to the movie’s credit, it’s meant to be difficult to find answers. I don’t think it’s as interested in finding true answers as it is in coping with death. By the end of the film, Joshua has ultimately accepted the loss of his grandfather (played in flashbacks by Robert Loggia in a wonderful performance) and he learns that sometimes things happen and you don’t know why, and it helps to have faith that in the end, things will be all right. That applies in life—you have to find your own proof within yourself that there is someone out there watching out for us and waiting to take care of us after we die. You can’t see it, but you can feel it.

When I was a kid, I liked “Wide Awake.” As I got older, I had a mixed reaction to it mainly because of moments that since overwrought with sentimentality. Watching it now at 22, I got more into the quieter moments that are very effective, and there’s a nice sense of satire in the ways this kid narrates the everyday, mundane things in his school; these were moments that kept me from rating it less than three stars. The overdramatic parts are still there and are admittedly still a little annoying, and there are parts that were supposed to be poignant that seem kind of weird (for example, when Joshua goes into the toy store and admits to his mother that he doesn’t feel the same as he did when he was younger, his speech not only sounds scripted; it sounds like an adult looking back rather than a kid having a “revelization,” as the kid describes it). And then it got to the ending. Without giving it away, it nearly brought the film to a two-and-a-half-star mixed review. It gives the kid an answer to one or two of the questions he’s been asking, but it’s not subtle and a little too much to buy.

But as you notice in the rating I gave it, I couldn’t bring myself to give “Wide Awake” less than a positive review, and that’s because those good moments are the ones that stick out to me, and there’s a good bunch of them that give me reason to recommend the film. It’s overall a nice mixture of humor and drama (both heavy and light).

The characters are likable and the actors playing them do solid jobs. Joseph Cross is an appealing hero, Denis Leary and Dana Delany do good jobs as his parents, Robert Loggia is excellent as his grandfather, the child actors are convincing (especially Timothy Reifsnyder as Joshua’s best friend Dave), and surprisingly, Rosie O’Donnell, as a good-hearted, wisecracking nun who also loves sports (and keeps basketball & football shots next to paintings of Jesus and the Cross in the classroom), gives a terrific performance. I actually kind of wish there was more of her character in the film (the DVD cover suggests there is, but don’t be fooled—if you are, don’t worry; Rosie O’Donnell is not obnoxious in this movie).

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention this was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It was his second film after 1992’s “Praying with Anger,” which I haven’t seen, and after this, he struck gold with the 1999 psychological thriller “The Sixth Sense.” If you follow Shyamalan’s career lately, with duds such as “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” and “After Earth,” you probably have a negative idea of this film already. But I thought he did a good job of directing his cast, and he was smart to write this script with gentleness and light humor rather than taking cheap shots at the Catholic school system or forcing us to cry at the more dramatic stuff. Some of his trademarks are present, like having its setting in Philadelphia and revealing somewhat of a twist at the end (which, as I said, doesn’t work at all), but that’s it, so don’t make fun of Shyamalan or this film before seeing it. I recommend “Wide Awake.”

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