[Pic Courtesy IMDb]
Its always interesting to go back and watch the initial movies made by a director who later became famous for a particular genre. Wide Awake was the second movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who then went on to direct Sixth Sense, the blockbuster that catapulted him to worldwide fame. It is a more intimate, personal film without the creepy atmosphere and Boo! moments that Shyamalan's films have since become known for. But it does contain his other trademarks like insights into everyday human behavior, ability to lighten a heavy theme with subtle humor and inclination towards the surprise ending.
The film stars Joseph Cross as Joshua Beal, a fifth grade student in a Catholic school. The recent loss of his grandfather has hit Joshua hard and his family is trying hard to help him deal with it. Unable to understand how bad things can happen to good people, Joshua embarks on a mission to find God.
Wide Awake's most affecting moments come from the flashback scenes depicting the relationship between Joseph and his grandfather. The moment where Joseph understands that his grandpa is sick and their subsequent conversations on the topic are very touching. There are some very human moments between Joseph and the rest of his family too(like their moral support of his quest and the scene that reveals his dad's discomfort in talking to him). But its the sequences between grandson and grandfather that are more emotional and this is important in understanding how much the loss means to Joseph.
Joseph seems to be too mature for his age. Apart from his rather high-concept mission, many of the things he says and the way he says them don't ring true when we consider they are coming from a fifth-grader. I guess thats better than him saying dumb things and acting all cute and irritating but it still felt scripted instead of feeling like its from the heart.
Like Signs, Wide Awake has its heart in the right place as long as you share Shyamalan's beliefs about religion and the supernatural. If you do so, the film has a feel-good ending that leaves you with a warm feeling in your heart. But for the viewer with a more cynical bent of mind, the ending could very well seem corny. I belong to the former category and so finished the movie with a smile on my lips and a good feeling in my heart.
The film is held up by some good performances. Rosie O' Donnell gets top billing and is enthusiasm personified as the baseball-loving nun. Joseph Cross seems stiff in a few scenes but is good overall. Robert Loggia brings depth to his role as the grandfather in the few scenes he is on screen. Dennis Leary and Julia Stiles, performers who have since become more familiar, have small roles as Joseph's dad and his sister.
Shyamalan, since Sixth Sense, has become one of my favorite directors. I like his grim, broody but never overtly violent style of filmmaking and am eagerly looking forward to his next film. So it was nice to go back and see one of the films where he sharpened his skills, so to speak. The fact that it was a nice, feel-good film was an added bonus.