Miracle at Miramax

Deal W. Hudson
July 1, 1997

Just when you think that nothing good can come out of Miramax, it comes up with this gem of a movie, Wide Awake. This story of Joshua (Joseph Cross), a ten-year-old boy who searches for God in a Catholic boys school in suburban Philadelphia, is breathtaking in its directness and simplicity. This is a movie for Catholic families who think there is nothing at the movie theaters that will touch their faith. Wide Awake will leave you speechless.

The talented screenwriter and director, M. Night Shyamalan, is unfamiliar to me, but his ability to bring a young boy’s spiritual quest to the screen in a believable way is uncanny. The missed notes in the movie are so few they are not worth discussing. Even the potentially disastrous use of Rosie O’Donnell, as the nun who uses baseball to illustrate the relationship between Jesus and Judas, provides just the right touch of balance…

The film opens as his grandfather’s (Robert Loggia) death causes Joshua to ask whether this God taught by the Catholic Church really exists. The flashback scenes between Joshua and his grandfather are each memorable for their tenderness and the reminder of what our children miss when they lack an extended family. His grandfather had once told him that he really believed in only two things: “Keep both hands on the ball and that God really exists.” He decides to find out if both are really true. He tries out for football; he trails a cardinal famous for healing; he confronts the class bully; he befriends the class outcast.

Those Catholics who have become so used to seeing their Church bashed and distorted on the screen will expect this story is going to turn in the same predictable direction. It never does. In fact, the story surprises you by delving even more deeply into the religious issues raised at the beginning of the film.

Case in point: a scene between Joshua and the school priest at Thursday morning confession. When Joshua asks the priest, “Can we just talk?” I feared for what would follow. I just knew we would get a hip priest shoveling mountains of psychobabble. But an unusual artistic sensibility guided this project, one that was not afraid to give witness. The dialogue between the priest and Joshua becomes a realistic and probing turning point in the film. The priest is slightly world-weary and admits to his own momentary doubts, but without the nonsense that plagues so many cinematic treatments of the same subject.

It is also to Shyamalan’s credit that he clearly outlines his narrative. The film takes place over the course of the school year—the three parts are entitled: “September: The Questions”; “December: The Signs”; and “May: The Answers.” The answers do come, and when they come they are both surprising and provide biblical resonance that only the most illiterate Christian could miss. There are many an opening sequence scanning pictures of saints on the wall of the school. As saints’ pictures gradually give way to sports heroes, the sound of sacred organ music transposes into a baseball park theme. The overall musical score by Edmund Choi is quite affecting, by the way.

The humor of this movie, insofar as it is about being Catholic and about going to a Catholic school, is both tasteful and funny. I’ve heard racier stories from priests at parish dinners. Totally lacking is the sardonic subtext that we have come to expect in movies where Catholicism is depicted.

Wide Awake affirms and espouses the faith in a way reminiscent of the great Frank Capra. Shyamalan has evidently not heard we live in the postmodern age where such questions and such religious affections are subject to scorn and skepticism. The meaning of the title itself, as you will find from the film, could not be more in line with Catholic realism and the sacramental vision of the Church. Which leads me to ask a question I cannot answer: How did such a movie ever get produced? And distributed by Miramax? I imagine that’s quite a story in itself.

In the meantime, those of us who were quick to point out the problems with Priest and Kids should just as quickly say “thank you” for Wide Awake.

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