Like its younger siblings in the M. Night Shyamalan canon, his second feature has some very spiritual questions on its mind. Instead of keeping it in the background, however, Wide Awake brings all of its curiosity front and center. It wants to believe in the supernatural, but this time, there are no ghosts, no reluctant super-humans, no aliens, and no mysterious creatures in the woods. This quest for answers takes place in a world that looks very plain and ordinary. Shyamalan’s once solid gift for drawing interesting characters asserts itself here to create a coming-of-age journey with a beating heart. It even has a couple surprises tucked up its sleeve.
When we first meet Joshua Beal, he’s a ten-year-old in mourning. His grandfather has just passed away, a victim of cancer. To keep the memories close, Josh spends his time in his grandpa’s old room, sitting in the old man’s chair, holding onto the old man’s pipe. Grandpa, he remembers, was a very devout man. His faith was the undergirding structure of a kind, gentle soul who showered Josh with love. In the wake of his loss, Josh feels very far away from the God his grandpa worshiped. So, Josh decides to go looking for Him. His search sparks a series of misadventures that seem to lead him to more questions, but ultimately reawaken his sleeping soul.
He’s a fifth grader at Waldron Academy, an all boys Catholic school in Philadelphia, so the quest for answers begins at a natural place. Josh decides to seek an audience with a famous cardinal visiting the school. When he finally earns a few moments with elder clergyman, he gets a tough surprise: even holy men are frail human beings. Sometimes they’re just as lost as everyone else.
For a film that is, in most respects, a comedy, Shyamalan deals with some heavy things here. The pain of loss in the wake of death is real and wrenching. The cast more than meets the challenge of applying a measure of levity to a movie that could feel much more cumbersome than it already does. The younger actors (including Julia Stiles in one of her first roles) each manage, for the most part, to charm their way into the story and give it a little more life.
As Josh’s mission to find and speak to God takes shape, the movie settles into an episodic groove. The occasional flashbacks to grandpa’s life shape his pursuit, until later when the device starts to weigh the movie down. While the film treats Josh’s search with a degree of honesty, it still treads a superficial path. The leadership at Josh’s school taps the clichéd idea of the weary faithful—everyone is kind and patient, generally somber and short on any real answers. With the exception of Rosie O’Donnel’s turn as a one of the school’s nuns, no adult in the school seems to have any joy. Faith might bring meaning to their lives, but most people carry it like a burden.
Josh’s parents aren’t very helpful either. Grandpa was his mother’s father, and while mom seems to miss her father terribly, she doesn’t seem to share his faith. Both parents are pretty ineffectual, and Shyamalan misses some excellent opportunities to engage the whole family in Josh’s mission. But the environment at home is not as flat as it first appears. Grandpa was really loved by this family. Even after his death, his room in the house is largely untouched, a monument to his memory. We’re never told why. Shyamalan offers us this glimpse without any further commentary. It tells us there’s more going on in the home and that maybe everyone is so somber because they’re all still mourning in their own way. Maybe the parents are so short on answers because they’re asking questions too.
The only real ally Josh has in the film is his friend Dave. Dave doesn’t believe in God—too many bad things happen for no good reason, he says. It’s a familiar sentiment, one Shyamalan would revisit in Signs. Dave isn’t wild about Josh’s quest, but helping him out involves a charge headlong into mischief, so Dave dives right in. When his dismissive attitude toward faith faces a real challenge, it shapes both kids in a way that forces them to confront faith as it relates to bad things in the world. The film never reaches the thoughtfulness of, say, C.S. Lewis’ struggle with the issue, but it is nice to know that Shyamalan didn’t want to dip too far into the pool of nihilism.
The question of what’s happening in the world beyond what we can see, or underneath, is something very close to each of Shyamalan’s movies. What’s certain, here, however, is that Josh struggles through the challenge of his quest and arrives at a conclusion that’s as well drawn as any adult who looks at the world around him and decides there has to be more than what we can see. Josh grows up in his fifth grade year. He learns to deal with death as a part of life. He learns a little of what makes the bullies around him tick. He even has to deal with how he feels about girls. His quest never takes him where he wants to go, but always where he needs to go.
Shyamalan’s gifts are apparent in his second feature. The movie is uneven at times—the pacing falters in the third act, and certain aspects of even general Christian belief is a little too muddled. But there are moments that hint at the potential that was, to many degrees, fulfilled in later films. Even this early in his career, Shyamalan had a gift for collecting young talent. He knew how to shape a film by showing us things that could accentuate the story without spelling it out for us. He even has a little twist waiting for us as he wraps everything up. It isn’t perfect—this is a film made by an artist who was still figuring things out. But it does remind us that Shyamalan was not, and is not, a fluke.
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan