Review: Wide Awake (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 1998)

HOLLYWOOD films have always had trouble with child actors and religious themes. That sad, sweet, overly sentimental legacy continues in Wide Awake, in which a 10 year old student at a Catholic school goes on a quest for God after the death of his devout grandfather.

Joseph Cross, the auspiciously named actor who plays Joshua, the 10 year old in question, is thankfully not as cloying here as he was in Desperate Measures, if only because he doesn’t have to pretend to be a bed-ridden cancer patient this time.

But, unlike the children who have appeared in, say, such French films as Will it Snow for Christmas? and Ponette, he never convinces you that he is, in fact, a real boy. He is very consciously performing a role, and you can almost sense the presence — or, more’s the pity, the absence — of a drama coach hovering nearby.

As for the religious stuff … well, Joshua is supposed to be a skeptical little boy who asks his parents and the nuns at school questions so tough that no one, apparently, can answer them. And so Joshua, the sort of dogged rationalist who dismisses his first schoolboy crush as “a biological reaction” dabbles in all the major religions before settling on a reluctant agnosticism.

His father is played by Denis Leary and his favorite nun by Rosie O’Donnell, two real-life comedians who can be sharp and witty when they want to be, but seem to be in this film for no better reason than to show their kinder, gentler sides (and perhaps pick up a paycheque).

Along the way, director M. Night Shyamalan drowns potentially heartwarming moments in thick, syrupy music, his script lapsing occasionally into slapstick or a case of the cutes. He fills his film with many noble sentiments, but they remain just that: sentiments, and rather pat ones, at that.

— A version of this review was first published in BC Christian News.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).