Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week, ahead of Easter, we’re looking at films about Christianity.
People who think M. Night Shyamalan immediately came out the gate with The Sixth Sense may be surprised to know that he had two films under the belt by 1999: His 1992 debut Praying With Anger (which didn’t get a proper theatrical release and mostly played at film festivals) and his 1998 follow-up Wide Awake (which did get a proper theatrical release—but we’ll get into that later). Wide Awake may come as a further shock to those who know Shyamalan as a prime dispenser of cinematic suspense. It’s actually a quiet family film that touches on themes of religion, spirituality, and higher powers—themes that have been consistent in the director’s later, more supernatural work.
Wide Awake casts a very young Joseph Cross as protagonist/off-camera narrator Joshua A. Beal, a Philadelphia kid who just lost his beloved grandfather (the late, great Robert Loggia) to bone-marrow cancer. He spends most of his fifth-grade year of Catholic school trying to communicate with God to see if his grandpa is okay, delving into other religions along the way. Of course, this concerns his family (which includes Dana Delany and Denis Leary as his parents and a pre-10 Things I Hate About You Julia Stiles as his bratty sister) as well as the school faculty, which includes Rosie O’Donnell as a baseball-loving nun. (There’s a sense that Shyamalan had O’Donnell for a limited time, since she rarely interacts with the students during her scenes.)
If you’ve never heard of this movie, you have one person to blame: convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein. Yes, Wide Awake was a Miramax release, which meant that Harvey Scissorhands poked his nose all through the production of this film. When it was done, there was a screening that ended with Weinstein verbally berating Shyamalan, prompting the young director to break down into tears. Later, O’Donnell called Weinstein to defend Shyamalan, but that didn’t end well, either. She too was slammed by Weinstein, who hit her with the b- and c-words and also made O’Donnell cry.
Weinstein ended up shelving Wide Awake (which was filmed in 1995), eventually dumping it into theaters in the spring of 1998. Thanks to an extreme lack of promotion and publicity, it reportedly made $282,175 against a $6 million budget. It’s a shame how Weinstein basically torpedoed the movie’s chances of finding an audience—this sleepy, simple film is quite the cute charmer.
Just as he proved when he made a star out of Haley Joel Osment, Shyamalan shows his gift for hiring charismatic kids in Wide Awake. Cross convincingly pulls off playing an elementary schooler whose spiritual journey actually makes him a better person, eventually finding sympathy for the bully who picks on him and the chubby kid who irritates him. Shyamalan also gets some wonderful young actors to aid in Beal’s mission, including Timothy Reifsnyder as his mischievous, atheist best friend and Heather Casler as the girl (named—wait for it!—Hope) Beal is smitten with.
Wide Awake illustrates an alternate path M. Night Shyamalan could’ve taken as a filmmaker. In true Shyamalan fashion, the film has a twist ending—but it’s less of a kick in the balls, leaving instead a warm feeling deep in the cockles.