Here’s a rarity: a children’s film that attempts to tackle a weighty subject, Is there a God? Done well, it could have been a gem among the wasteland of modern children’s cinema. Unfortunately, it isn’t. With jumbled messages, and an unclear audience, Wide Awake was better left asleep.
Fifth grader Joshua Beal (Joseph Cross) is in the middle of a moral crisis. His beloved grandfather (Robert Loggia) has died, and Joshua has begun a quest. He wants to find God, to discover why bad things happen.
This religious quest is slightly disturbing for his parents (Dana Delany and Denis Leary), but they do their best to cope with their son as he explores different religious faiths. At his Catholic school, his favorite teacher, Sister Terry (Rosie O’Donnell), tries to give him guidance, but this is a journey he must make on his own.
Meanwhile, he is having the most momentous year of his life. He has several adventures with his daredevil best friend Dave (Timothy Reifsnyder), he gets his first crush, and begins to wake up to the world around him while he is on his spiritual journey.
It is somewhat confusing as to what the real audience for Wide Awake is expected to be. On its surface, it appears to be a kid’s film. However, it deals with serious issues, and is likely to be boring for today’s instant-gratification kids. And while it might seem heartening to see that someone is trying to produce something thoughtful for the kidvid audience, Wide Awake asks serious questions, but only delivers a cheap gimmick for an answer.
If there were a bit more meat in the story, adults on a nostalgic bent might get a kick out of the movie. The actors who might have created a great cast (O’Donnell, Leary and Delany) are wasted in roles that amount to little more than cameos. The nostalgic elements (best friend, favorite teacher, first crush, etc.) have been done much better in other movies, and actually seem more like filler here.
The film’s strongest scenes are some touching flashbacks depicting Joshua’s relationship with his grandfather. They show more depth than is present anywhere else in the movie. Maybe the film would have been better if, instead of playing the relationship through flashbacks, it were set entirely during Joshua’s last year with his grandpa. It certainly would have been more entertaining.
Wide Awake can best be described as a failed experiment. It starts out with noble aspirations, but never delivers on its promise. Parents who do take their children to see this one ought to be prepared to answer some tough questions…that is if their kids aren’t bored to death first.