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

Centering on a young boy’s painful adjustment to the death of his beloved grandfather, “Wide Awake,” the second feature from Philadelphia-based writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, is an earnest coming-of-age tale with explicitly moral and spiritual overtones. Representing a serious, rather old-fashioned family entertainment that lacks the thrills, frills, animals and special effects of recent kids fare, Miramax release should enjoy moderate appeal among young children and their parents, with possibly stronger performance in ancillary markets.

There is no doubt that “Wide Awake” aspires to join the ranks of such pics as “Stand by Me” and “Dead Poets Society,” which celebrated the special nature of boyhood friendships and adventures. In execution, however, new film is a tad too 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 the 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.

As is often the case, fifth-grader Joshua Beal (Joseph Cross) is closer to his charismatic grandfather (Robert Loggia) than to his kind but restrained yuppie parents (Denis Leary and Dana Delaney). Enjoying an intimate bond, which is depicted 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.” But when he dies, Josh is not only devastated, but refuses to adjust to a new reality, insisting that his grandpa’s room remain untouched.

Shattered by the experience, Josh needs to find out some truths for himself. Indeed, he begins raising big existential questions that no adults, not his educated parents or the teachers at his Catholic school, can possibly answer. The film carries its central moral problem — “If there’s a God, why is there 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 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 less effective at infusing its somber goals with the kind of light, comic touch that would make pic palatable for young viewers. There are some funny sequences that capture the absurd distance between the audacity with which kids typically approach the world, and the disenchanted, sarcastic manner with which adults tend to avoid dealing with unpleasant issues. But Shyamalan is only partly successful at mixing healthy humor with poignant situations.

Though the film is quite enjoyable on its own terms, the manner in which it’s staged may distance its target audience. It doesn’t help, for instance, that significant sequences are covered by voice-over narration.The extensive use of voiceover narration won’t help to draw viewers in. On the plus side, picture benefits from a satisfying climax and resolution.

Newcomer Cross is well cast as the 9-year-old who’s unafraid of raising the most sacred questions about the meaning of life and death. Gifted thesp Loggia shows he is equally adept at playing decent, sensitive characters as the menacing thugs for which he’s known. 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 all-too-familiar edge to her role as an eccentric schoolteacher obsessed with sports.

Shot in Philadelphia, where helmer grew up, pic has serviceable tech credits. Though nominally telling a different story, “Wide Awake” has the same inspirational values that characterized “Rudy,” which was also produced by Cary Woods.

Wide Awake

(Coming-of-age drama --- Color)

Production

A Miramax release of a Woods Entertainment production. Produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad. Executive producers, Randy Ostrow, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster. Co-producer, James Bigwood. Directed, written by M. Night Shyamalan.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Adam Holender; editor, Andrew Mondshein; music, Edmund Choi; production design, Michael Johnston; set decoration, Andrea Fenton; costume design, Bridget Kelly; sound (Dolby), Brian Miksis; associate producer, Timothy Lonsdale; assistant director, Carla Bowen; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Feb. 24, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 88 min.

With

Joshua Beal - Joseph Cross Dave O'Hara - Timothy Reifsnyder Mrs. Beal - Dana Delaney Mr. Beal - Denis Leary Grandpa Beal - Robert Loggia Sister Terry - Rosie O'Donnell Sister Sophia - Camryn Manheim Sister Beatrice - Vicki Giunta
Camera (Technicolor), Adam Holender; editor, Andrew Mondshein; music, Edmund Choi; production design, Michael Johnston; set decoration, Andrea Fenton; costume design, Bridget Kelly; sound (Dolby), Brian Miksis; associate producer, Timothy Lonsdale; assistant director, Carla Bowen; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Feb. 24, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 88 min.
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