Wide Awake: Shyamalan’s Earnest Coming of Age Tale, Starring Rosie O’Donnell

Centering on a young boy’s extremely painful adjustment to the death of his beloved grandfather, Wide Awake, the second feature from Philadelphia-based M. Night Shyamalan, is an earnest coming-of-age tale with overly explicit moral and spiritual overtones.

This is a serious and old-fashioned family entertainment, lacking the thrills, frills, animals and special effects of recent kids fare.

As written and directed by Shyamalan, Wide Awake aspires to belong to the league of such magically enchanting children pics as Stand By Me and Dead Poets Society, which celebrated the uniqueness of boyhood’s friendships and adventurism.

In execution, however, new film is dull and solemnly inspirational in detailing the efforts of one bright kid to understand the “injustice” inflicted on the universe.

Reflecting the zeitgeist of the last decade, with children increasingly having to come to terms with sudden, untimely deaths of parents and friends, as a result of AIDS and other illnesses, Wide Awake tackles its issues with an admirably uncompromising honesty, though it suffers from being dramatically obvious.

Fifth grader Joshua Beal (Joseph Cross) is closer to his charismatic grandfather (Robert Loggia) than to his kind but restrained yuppie parents (played by Denis Leary and Dana Delaney). Enjoying an intimate bond, which is reconstructed in a series of flashbacks, grandpa and Josh firmly believe that they make “a great team,” one that will last forever. The ailing man keeps telling Josh, “Don’t worry, I’ll be all right, God will take care of me.” However, when he dies, Josh is not only devastated by the event, but he simply refuses to adjust to a new reality, insisting that his grandpa’s room remain untouched for the longest period of time.

Shattered by the experience, Josh needs to find out some truths for himself. Indeed, he begins raising big existential questions that no representatives of the adult world, neither his educated parents nor his teachers at his Catholic school, can possibly answer. The film carries its central moral problem–“If there’s God, how come there’s so much suffering in the world”–as far as it can. Clearly, it’s the kind of universal query that many children must have asked at one time or another in their lives. In the course of the narrative, Josh engages unapologetically in a fearless quest for the truth that leads to new experiences, including an unexpected climactic episode, in which he manages to save the life of a classmate.

Wide Awake is not effective is infusing its somber goals with the kind of light, comic touch that will make it palatable for young viewers. Sporadically, there are some funny sequences that capture the absurd distance between the courageous audacity with which kids typically approach the world, and the disenchanted, sarcastic manner with which adults tend to avoid dealing with unpleasant issues.

One can only imagine what Truffaut, Spielberg and other directors whose work has dealt with children from an adult P.O.V., could have done with such material, but Shyamalan is only partly successful in his ability to mix healthy humor with emotionally poignant situations.

The film is staged in a manner that faces the danger of distancing its target audience with its basically serious intent. It doesn’t help viewers’ involvement that large sequences of the movie are presented in a voice-over narration. On the plus side, picture benefits from a satisfying climax and “resolution” that most viewers will also find coherent.

Newcomer Cross is well cast as the 9-year-old juvenile who’s unafraid of raising the most sacred questions about the meaning of life and death. Gifted thesp Loggia shows that he is equally adept at playing menacing thugs and decent, sensitive characters. As Josh’s parents-doctors, the appealing Leary and Delaney are burdened with schematically limited roles, whose sole purpose is to accentuate the gap between children’s vision and that of adults. Rosie O’Donnell brings her too-familiar customary edge to the role of an eccentric schoolteacher obsessed with sports.

Shot in Philadelphia, where helmer grew up, picture’s tech credits are serviceable. Though nominally telling a different story, Wide Awake has the same literal and inspirational values that characterized Rudy, which was also produced by Cary Woods.