Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's debut feature focuses on the naive questions children ask regarding life and death, and the embarrassing and sometimes frightening effects their inquiries have on adults. The subject should have been recognizable to anyone who ever cringed as a kid during a funeral because the rituals seemed hollow and meaningless, or who ever asked an adult what heaven was and received an answer that, to a child's imagination, sounded dull. But Wide Awake only proves that depicting religious subjects in depth is still a taboo in American cinema. Just a handful of recent films have given us intriguing religious characters. Michael Tolkin's The Rapture and Todd Haynes' Safe each showed a person who, by film's end, has arrived at a conviction, yet is still striving desperately to clarify it. Wide Awake seems like the watered-down, and possibly studio-mangled, version of these. The movie relies on irritating clichs about Catholicism, is dramatically unconvincing most of the way through, and even runs into logical inconsistencies where its main character's quest for God is concerned.
Wide Awake's opening, at least, gets one's attention: While we see only a black frame, we hear soon-to-be-fifth-grader Joshua Beal (Joseph Cross) playing catch football with his grandfather (Robert Loggia). It's possible that this game is all Joshua's dream, since immediately after it he wakes up, and gets ready for his first day of the school year. Nevertheless, the absence of any image in the film's first moments cleverly gives a little foretaste of the inferiority of Joshua's search for a divine being.
Early on, we learn that Joshua's grandpa has recently passed away. Something in Joshua resists going back to his life's routines, and he soon feels alienated from the pace of forced progress at his upper-class, Catholic grade school. The boy wants to know for certain that his grandfather has gone to heaven, as he assured him he would. Joshua confides to his best friend that he is on a 'mission' to locate God. The authorities at his school can't really see the value of Joshua giving free reign to his doubts, except for Sister Terry (Rosie O'Donnell), a relatively relaxed and unconventional teacher. After school hours, she patiently listens to him talk about his reconsiderations of his faith. But his parents (Denis Leary and Dana Delany), both doctors, are less sympathetic to his pursuit: When Joshua asks to observe an operation at their hospital, to determine whether he can see God inside a person's body, they angrily turn down his request.
The milieus, characters and storytelling of Wide Awake all fall into simplistic formulas. Joshua's Catholic school simply must have its requisite jaded priest, undiagnosed psychotic kid, and gaggle of prissy nuns counterbalanced by a single free-spirited sister (O'Donnell). Joshua, too, just happens to make his life's discovery of girls, in the form of a cutie-pie who attends the all-girls' school next door, at the very same time he is conducting his spiritual investigation. As long as the brainiac has a girl beside him, the formula goes, audiences will not feel bored or put off by the former's abstract ruminations. Needless to say, the girl is too practical to understand why God preoccupies Joshua, but, all the same, she is there when he needs her. Joshua's parents, on the other hand, are doctors and thus worldly types, who discourage their son from investing an undue amount of time in an obscure matter like religion.
Even worse than all of these stock relationships are signs of downright incoherence in the film. Sunlight filtering through a window is introduced early on as a metaphor; a further explanation is owed about it, yet the film curiously drops it out. Joshua reports to Sister Terry religious texts he's studied that we never previously knew he had read. Half the lines that the boy speaks in voice-over show a wisdom acquired by hindsight. They'd sound more believable coming from an older youth or adult who reflects on his childhood experiences, than from a precocious fifth-grader. Although the film makes Joshua's disdain for church authority clear, he nevertheless begs his parents to find a way to introduce him to the Pope. While the film was written and directed by Shyamalan, reportedly based on his own early life, Wide Awake's choppy construction might be attributable to a distribution outfit known to hack first and ask questions later.