Time: 88 minutes
Denis Leary as Mr. Beal
Dana Delany as Mrs. Beal
Joseph Cross as Joshua A. Beal
Rosie O’Donnell as Sister Terry
Timothy Reifsnyder as Dave O’Hara
Robert Loggia as Grandpa Beal
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
A fifth grader (Joseph Cross) goes on a search for God after his grandfather (Robert Loggia) dies. Along the way he gets into tons of trouble at Waldron Academy an all-boys school.
Most people first learned about M. Night Shyamalan upon the release of The Sixth Sense, which became an instant hit and the point where his career took off. What most people don’t know is that The Sixth Sense wasn’t his directorial debut but rather his third movie, having made two prior movies that not many people heard of with Praying with Anger and Wide Awake. Both are pretty hard to gain access to, but I managed to watch the latter. Being overshadowed by later films aside, there’s also a good reason why Wide Awake is not really heard of. Despite being made in 1995 (and written in 1991), Harvey Weinstein basically buried the film’s release with the distribution, and was not released until 1998 (1 year before The Sixth Sense was released). Honestly I wasn’t expecting much based off the premise, although I was interested to see how Shyamalan started before his first hit. The movie wasn’t actually that bad, although I wouldn’t call the movie good either.
The premise of Wide Awake does sound like a premise of a lifetime movie about religion, and much of the actual movie feels like that. With that said, the premise did have potential, it could’ve been about exploring grief from perspective of a child. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really do anything interesting. The movie consists of the main kid trying to speak with God, having doubts and then something makes him believe again. Most of the time the movie is spent at the catholic school and at his home with occasional flashbacks of him hanging out with his grandfather. The themes were heavy handed with no subtlety at all. Not that every movie needs to feature their themes in a subtle way but for this topic it needed to be handled with a degree of nuance. However this is a movie where the main character literally Googles “Who’s God?”. The subject matter is presented clumsily and overly sentimental, with a whole lot of cheese. It never reaches a level of profoundness. The journey of the lead character’s search for God and answers isn’t particularly interesting. Spoiler alert, it pretty much ends up with “God works in mysterious ways”. It’s a very bland movie with very little surprises, and the characters and writing feel rather fake. The writing for the children especially doesn’t actually feel like what children that age would do or say. Despite aiming to be touching and moving, ultimately it feels rather hollow and doesn’t really leave any impact. Even the attempts at humour fall flat. Despite how bland the story was, in some ways I found the movie weirdly interesting in some of the odd choices it made. It especially felt odd that this 10 year old kid is having this desire to find God, so it was somewhat intriguing at first to see what they would do next. However by the time it reached the third act, I wasn’t into it any more. One way it does feel like a Shyamalan film is a twist at the end, which was certainly a weird choice to make that really didn’t add anything to the movie.
The acting is nothing special, it’s functional and not bad, but nothing really worth mentioning. Generally, the acting of the children was surprisingly okay for the most part, the writing for them however is weird because some of these 10 year olds speak with so much self-awareness that it’s unbelievable. Joseph Cross does relatively well in his part of the lead character. Nothing much to say about the adult actors, I will say that despite Rosie O’Donnell being on the cover art of the film, her character of a baseball loving nun basically doesn’t have much involvement with the plot.
As I said earlier, M. Night Shyamalan directs Wide Awake, and there is basically no hint of Shyamalan from this one movie. He’s definitely still learning as a filmmaker and it does have some technical missteps. There is so much voiceover throughout, with the main character constantly giving internal exposition about the past and his feelings. It can get overbearing and annoying really quickly. The cutesy and quirky score can get a little annoying too. On the whole though it is competently made, some shots are nicely composed, and I wouldn’t say it’s a badly directed movie.
Honestly the most interesting part of the movie is the fact that M. Night Shyamalan made it at all. That is probably what kept me somewhat patiently staying with this movie, without his name attached I probably would’ve given up on it earlier on. That aside, it’s a very mediocre yet harmless Hallmark movie that’s quite forgettable. I would actually put this as one of Shyamalan’s worst movies, though keep in mind I only dislike a few of his movies. Wide Awake is honestly not worth checking out unless you’re interested in seeing how he started as a filmmaker.