The Sixth Sense often appears to be remembered as being M. Night Shyamalan’s debut, but it was actually his third film. Following his never released, semi-autobiographical, and self-starring student film Praying with Anger in 1992, he wrote and directed Wide Awake in 1995. The film would not see a release until early 1998 however, where it made little impact.
The film bears little resemblance to those that made Shyamalan’s name a short while later. It’s not spooky or supernatural at all, and is quite light in tone. It’s a drama centring on a young boy called Joshua. His grandfather, of whom he was very fond, has recently died and it’s making him think more about big questions. He attends a segregated Roman Catholic school where his main teacher is an easy-going nun, who compares Jesus and his disciples to a baseball team to explain them to her students.
In a stand-out early scene, he and some other boys pose questions to their teacher, with genuine concern, as to whether unbaptized people can get into heaven. They all have friends or relatives that aren’t baptized, and their school books state that people who aren’t baptized can’t get into heaven. Their teacher nervously tries to dodge her way around the questions before the bell rings, to her visible relief. Wide Awake is unfortunately not a light-hearted ribbing of catholic education though, as this scene suggests it could be.
Instead Joshua then decides to go off in search of god, or at least some kind of sign of god, to see if his grandfather is OK. He goes about this by asking his parents if he can go to the Vatican to ‘meet the pope’, and pseudo-stalking a visiting cardinal.
The film feels like an unfocused, meandering experience after its initial set-up, the kids are not as irritating as many films contemporary to Wide Awake but don’t feel genuine, and the film isn’t afraid to pile on the sentimentality at times. It starts out with a boy asking deep questions, but Wide Awake doesn’t end up with satisfying answers, playing it safe to avoid any audience conflict.
It might be worth noting that Shyamalan was only around 25 when he made this, extremely young for a film director, but there’s still not much about it the makes it recognizable as a Shyamalan film, it’s tone, style, and score are very similar to a number of other nineties family dramas. Being a kid’s film that’s unlikely to maintain the average kid’s attention, it’s not too hard to see why it failed to find an audience. Even though from Signs onward, Shyamalan’s been producing bad film after bad film, it doesn’t leave Wide Awake looking that much better. If he had ever become ‘the new Spielberg’ as he was once proclaimed, it’s still unlikely that this would have been rediscovered.
‘The Lesser Seen’ is a feature in which I highlight a lower-profile film or two by a well-known director.