Wide Awake (1998)
M. Night Shyamalan
God, Love, Religion
Wide Awake (1998). Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring Joseph Cross, Rosie O’Donnell, and Robert Loggia. Rated PG. 88 mins. Rotten Tomatoes 67%.
The question of what actual love looks like has plagued humankind since, well, the beginning, whether that be Adam and Eve left to themselves in a garden or some humanoid back whenever relishing a child or just a nice dry, warm cave. And American culture, at least, arguably the most religious among “advanced” societies, much of the time doesn’t seem to have made much progress, whether it be guns or groping.
Some help for the malady comes in the strangest places, one of which is that compendium of stories and sayings called the Bible. Another, clearly, is film, and on the question of what love looks like, the film Wide Awake provides a delightful, very funny story that shows a response to that hardest of questions.* The first post-film school film by enormously successful writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and Signs) puts it up there on the screen with remarkable acuity. Young Josh is about to start the 5th grade at Waldron Academy, a swanky private Roman Catholic school off Philadelphia’s Mainline. That, though, is incidental to a far harder task at hand, and that is finding his way through his great loss at the death of his beloved grandfather (the late Robert Loggia), a kindly fellow who lived with his daughter’s family in their very large manse. Indeed, his grandfather was his best friend, and in flashbacks the film captures how that was the case.
In the aftermath of his loss, Josh wants desperately to make sure that his grandfather is now “okay,” and to that end he undertakes his own months-long quest, though the old man was a devout Catholic, trying out this religion and that looking for measure of reassurance on his grandfather’s post-mortem fate. And being but a boy, he’d like any evidence to be markedly palpable–in short, some clear immediate display of some kind, be it music, portents, signs, or any clearly divine intrusion into the quite ordinary course of living life. Good luck, kid.
Five minutes of the disaster-count on the evening news convinces Josh that he won’t find any goodness or love there, and thereafter comes Judaism, Buddhism, and just about everything a ten-year old can find on the new resource called the internet. And in pursuit of such, sometimes one does strange things at class Christmas parties.
None provide an “answer” for Josh, and by spring he is resigned to admitting that God is not there, at least in any way that provides an answer. “My grandpa was wrong, someone just made God up.” As a memorial gesture of resignation, Josh commits to burying his grandfather’s favorite shirt under a tree in the backyard. Then, though, in the midst of doing so, he recalls an incident from his class’s track “field day” the previous Spring. With his seriously ailing grandfather in attendance, Josh commits to winning a dash for him, but halfway through the race he stumbles and falls. While Josh still lies on the course, the Sister emcee is about to announce the winners, but his grandfather intervenes, telling the sister that his grandson has not yet finished the race. Josh picks himself up and dashes, music swelling as he goes, into his grandfather’s waiting arms.
As slowly becomes clear, amid hints and guesses that abound throughout the film, Josh has looked all the wrong ways and places, not recognizing the love that has already enveloped him. That anybody should or could care so much is beyond all usual reason and possibility, especially given the literal material nothingness from which humankind emerged. Just like everyone else, Josh overlooks the beauty and care that lies nearest them. The grandfather waits at the end of the course with his waiting arms open and outstretched, and that should be good enough for just about anybody, unless, that is, a monster ego stands in the way. Divine welcome happens no matter how we stumble, literally and otherwise. Manifest in countless unforeseeable places and ways, such is the character and presence of God.
*For more on this remarkable film, one that is far better than critics realized at time of its release, see the chapter in Anker’s Beautiful Light: Religious Meaning in Film (Eerdmans, 2017).