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The Independent Critic

Rosie O'Donnell, Robert Loggia, Dana Delany, Joshua Beals
M. Night Shyamalan
Rated PG
88 Mins.
Miramax/New Films
 "Wide Awake" Review 

I have long believed that children are our most brilliant teachers. Children are capable of surrender...surrender to heart, surrender to faith, surrender to fear, surrender to love. Yes, many times a life experience may alter this surrender...but, inherently, children surrender far more easily than adults. This surrender allows them the opportunity to experience life on an authentic level and to learn without bias, without discrimination. It is us...the adults of the world who plant the bias, who plant the seeds of discrimination and of doubt.

This film impacted me in much the way "Ponette" did...while no performance will ever likely match that of the young child in "Ponette," this much more mainstream exploration of a child's grief, search for hope, search for faith and meaning is powerful in the way it presents grief and faith as a part of everyday life. Whereas "Ponette" focused quite intensely on the child's grief, this film incorporates that grief into the child's life.

This is a family film in the truest sense of the word. It celebrates family of birth and family of acknowledges the power of friendship to heal, and the power of each of us to heal each other and to be angels without wings.

This is not a film for everyone...I can't fathom that an atheist or individual not on a spiritual path would enjoy this film or understand its intent. If you require a family film that moves at a fast pace and is abundant in its silliness, then this film will not meet your needs.

This film reminds me, in some ways, of "Angus," another of my favorite films. While "Angus" took place in high school, and some of the issues were taught so many lessons about being an individual, being true to yourself and becoming empowered through one's grief. It's honesty and simplicity have made me cry every time I have seen the film.

This film, too, brought me to tears on multiple occasions. This is largely due to the wonderful performance of Joseph Cross, as Joshua Beals. Cross is front and center here, and while I initially had to work through a voice that was eerily similar to Haley Joel Osment, I found his performance to be understatedly powerful. He serves also as the film's narrator, and his voice works wonderfully within the scenes.

As his parents, Dana Delany and Denis Leary have smaller, supporting roles but do so much with them. In small, quiet ways they show beautifully how a parent struggles to help and love their child through their grief. Quite simply, this is beautiful...and the look on their faces in a closing scene of resolution is the look of pride I think every child yearns for in life.

Perhaps the film's most beautiful scenes are the scenes with Grandpa, played by Robert Loggia, and Joshua. These are simple scenes...they are not played for drama or for effect...they are simple, tender scenes of a special relationship between a grandfather and his grandchild. It is Grandpa's death that is grieved, and the flashback scenes powerfully illustrate the deep love and affection they had which helps so much in understanding Joshua's grief.

It is sad, in some ways, that Rosie O'Donnell is featured on the cover of this DVD. It gives the impression this is an O'Donnell comedy...while she's garnered moderate respect as an actress...I think giving this impression will keep some from viewing the film. Plus, quite simply, it is not accurate. She is a part of this film, and a wonderful part in her role as a nun, but she's truly not central here. So, please know...a Rosie O'Donnell comedy this is not.

Supporting players who do beautiful jobs here include Camryn Manheim (also a nun), Timothy Reifsnyder as Joshua's best friend, Heather Casler as Hope and a much younger Julia Stiles giving an underdeveloped character considerable life. Stiles, in particular, could have had a throwaway character, but she adds so much to this role in being a sister...not a caricature.

I am, much like fellow critic NYC, feeling somewhat protective of this film. Perhaps unlike NYC, I am unwilling to hide it. There are, undoubtedly, those who will pick it apart. Quite simply, I don't care. I can't help but believe that the messages in this film are so incredibly vital that I should shout it from the rooftops.

So, I make a special note here that hasn't been noted. Somewhat surprisingly, this film is written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It is his film directly prior to "Sixth Sense." It is far from anything he has done since "Sixth Sense" and yet you can easily see hints of his spirituality and faith within the film. I agree with NYC's observation that it appears he was likely directed by the studio to add some coming of age humor that seems oddly out of place at times. The ending, in particular, is like "Now that's a "Night" move."

This film received a nomination for Best Feature in the Young Artist Awards, and Cross received an acting nomination. It is nice to see that it received some recognition.

In short, this film excels where many films fail. It is an intelligent family does not condescend to children, but honors, respects and embraces them. It explores the journey of childhood with openness and authenticity, adding life journeys that many of us stay on our entire lives. I finished viewing this film feeling "Wide Awake" and ready to embrace life.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic