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A Boy's Guide to Death

In Wide Awake, a crisis of faith is kid stuff

Rosie O'Donnell sure makes a believable nun. In the kids' movie Wide Awake, she plays Sister Terry, a sports-loving teacher at a swanky private school in the Philadelphia suburbs, a sympathetic good egg in whom the troubled 10-year-old hero (Joseph Cross) confides. There's not a minute when she isn't convincing.

Indeed, Sister Terry comes across almost exactly like the O'Donnell of daytime TV -- the wholesome, good-role-model show-biz schmoozer who has gradually replaced the tough, trash-talking wiseacre of the standup stage. It's as if she's been injected with Oprah DNA.

Wide Awake is a heavily homogenized piece of work, but it has an unusual theme for a kid flick: It's about a crisis of faith. Cross plays Joshua, who can't get over the recent death of his much-loved grandfather (played, in flashbacks, by Robert Loggia). Josh starts asking questions about death and God and the hereafter, and his parents (Dana Delany and Denis Leary) and others around him furrow their brows with worry.

With the exception of Sister Terry, everybody seems to be freaked out by Josh's questions. In the comfortable, upper-middle-class world in which Wide Awake's characters live, adults seem so embarrassed by religion that they react to an inquiry along these lines with a sort of fretful suspicion.

If that is a realistic depiction, I feel sorry for the kid who's afflicted with the kind of serious, terrifying spiritual crisis -- a "long, dark night of the soul," St. John of the Cross called it -- that can be common at that age. Joshua's is just about the least intense imaginable; it's a quick, bright afternoon of the soul. He sets about finding the meaning of life as if it were a school project -- a pressed-leaf collection or something -- and the grownups around him react as if he's showing the early signs of mental illness. Even the nuns seem uncomfortable with the subject. It's clear that if Josh took his concerns any farther, he'd be met with real impatience.

With a director enigmatically named M. Night Shyamalan, Wide Awake is a pleasant, watchable, occasionally even touching film. It's also a canny one -- it uses a difficult theme to generate drama, then buffs the sharp edges off the theme before the young hero can start to seem weird or obtuse.

Cross, who needed the bone-marrow transplant in Desperate Measures, is showcased as a golden boy. The moviemakers are careful to contrast him with other, less evolved boys like a working-class bully, a fat kid, an epileptic and a class weirdo who steals a picture of the Pope and carries it up onto a jungle gym in a rainstorm. With patronizing magnanimity, Josh later acknowledges that these kids enriched his life; but the movie seems to suggest that enriching a cute, popular bourgeois kid's life is the best such juvie misanthropes could hope for. I wished the movie had been about one of them, instead.

Instead, it gives us a well-rounded kid putting some good-natured effort into mastering his religious fears in the same way he might master algebra. He even finds time to work in a bit of romance, because, after all, all cosmic anxiety and no play could make Josh a dull boy.

Wide Awake.
Rated PG.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. With Joseph Cross, Rosie O'Donnell, Robert Loggia, Denis Leary, Dana Delany, Timothy Reifsnyder, Camryn Manheim and Dan Lauria.

 
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