It’s a little crazy that M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie in theaters considering the chorus of pitch fork-wielders that has sat outside his house since Lady in the Water, chanting for him to knock it off. Throughout the mob grumbling, he went through a (failed) career evolution into big budget action, but he’s still overwhelmingly known for the plot-twisting signature/stain that made his name before mocking it.
It’s also a little crazy that Manoj Shyamalan’s best-reviewed movie since Signs has a budget lower than his first theatrical feature.
While most are recognizing The Visit as a return to form or a return to his roots, it goes far beyond that, representing a monetary devolution which almost never happens for filmmakers: the last movie he directed (After Earth) had a budget 2600% larger than his current film about terrifying grannies.
But let’s go back, close to where it all started. Before seeing dead people, Shyamalan got his studio start with the Hallmark-ish schmaltz of Wide Awake, but despite its family friendly gloss, it portends several of the filmmaker’s signatures. Yes, it even has a twist.
Wide Awake is the story of a ten-year-old kid wading through a G-rated coming-of-age to find God after he loses his grandfather. Joshua Beal (played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas clone Joseph Cross) is terrified that his granddad’s ever-lasting soul isn’t being taken care of, so he attacks the problem with all the youthful spritefulness of a retirement age accountant. His best pal at the private Catholic boys’ school, Dave (Timothy Reifsnyder), wants him to chill out and enjoy life, but existentialism weighs too heavy on the head who wears the bowl cut.
As a bonus, Denis Leary plays a nebbish dad worried about the world, Rosie O’Donnell plays a baseball-obsessed nun, and Robert Loggia plays the golden-hearted grandpa whose death troubles our fifth grade hero during a year of school rules to break, first crushes to biologically react to, and the greater truths of ultimate reality to parse out. There’s also a bully to survive, a weirdo kid acting as comic relief, and a mischievous classmate who helps Joshua whenever he needs to sneak off campus to find a visiting Bishop who’s being swarmed by ecstatic schoolgirls like he’s all four of The Beatles.
It’s harmless fluff of the highest order, and, despite its Sister Act-mimicking broadness, it was barely seen by anyone when it came out in 1998. A year later, Bruce Willis being dead would ensure that nobody (except idiots like me) would give Shyamalan’s early, huggable sin a second thought. A forgotten film rightfully forgotten, Wide Awake nevertheless bridges the gap between The Sixth Sense and Stuart Little. The former cemented Shyamalan’s spooky persona so thoroughly that it almost always comes as a surprise to remember he wrote the CGI mousecapades of the latter. If you really want to win a bar bet, bring Wide Awake into the conversation. Show your friends the trailer, bet the next two rounds that Shyamalan wrote and directed it, and enjoy your free booze.
There’s a lot of cheesy simplicity, and it definitely wouldn’t have predicted the incipient, Shyamalan tension, but there are a few moments that separate it from the slush pile. Namely, a half-dozen conversations between the precocious little worrywart and the adults in his life attempting to explain the tough stuff or tease out his reasons for responding like he does. They show a knack for dialogue even under the fluffy constraints, and Shyamalan works well to point out adult failures in a variety of flavors. When mirrored by the general lack of explanations and inquiry from his parents, Joshua’s growing atheism makes a lot of sense. It’s also at least a little impressive how much is lobbed onto this kid in the name of sloughing off his childhood.
His grandfather’s death is clearly the catalyst, but it’s less that he loses an older family member and more that he loses the only person who cares about him – his own father and mother flit occasionally into scenes, busy with their careers and generally unable to help (especially when they get rid of the grandfather’s belongings), his sister (played by Julia Stiles) is appropriately snarky, and his teachers are all consumed by class numbers. Then, while scrambling with the question of loss, he watches his best friend almost die in front of him, confirming that his pal has epilepsy and marking his search for God as even more desperate. Considering that his dead grandpa was his true father/mother figure, it’s no wonder this kid takes life so damned seriously.
Unfortunately, it’s all presented with the neutered sigh of direct-to-video aortic tugging, making Sixth Sense a genuine elevation in every element of filmmaking – structure, dialogue, cinematography, and the refusal to repeat the phrase “wiggin’ out” in every scene. His foree into feel good territory was Shyamalan shaking off his baby fat.
Watching Wide Awake — a title that, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with anything except that Joshua claims in a school essay to have been walking through his life (all 10 years of it!) with his eyes closed – it’s clear to see the lumps of clay that Shyamalan would later form into sharper relief. The lonesome, overthinking child with a devastating worldview spurred by death that adults can’t alleviate becomes the lonesome, overthinking child with a devastating worldview of dead people that adults can’t alleviate. The fractured family with struggling parent(s) remains, as do the larger questions of growing up and existing.
Wide Awake and Sixth Sense even share similar twist DNA.
In the first, Joshua’s search for God takes on a Miracle on 34th Street remake air when we learn that, gasp, God’s been with him all along. The sly child who kept helping him sneak off campus? The one who no one else ever interacts with? It’s God, and he wants Joshua to know that his grandfather is burning in eternal hell.
Just kidding. He assures Joshua that the nicest version of Robert Loggia is totally happy in the afterlife, and it’s been really sweet of him to care so deeply.
It’s not difficult to see how the tow-headed Tyler Durden morphs into a psychiatrist who helps a troubled kid despite never interacting with anyone else. Of course, a lot of Shyamalan’s movies deal with the communicative gap between parental figures and children. Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Happening, After Earth and now The Visit all feature relatively clueless authority figures poorly explaining reality and fumbling to prepare children for it. Clearly, from his first studio film to his latest, relationships with grandparents have morphed quite a bit – maybe even changing to suit the tonal persona Shyamalan is firmly known for. Gone is the heroically kind grandparent, replaced by creepy AARP members hiding secrets in the shed. That’s more like the Shyamalan we’ve come to expect.
It’s also awesome that he couldn’t resist shoving a twist into a heartwarming family comedy. If there’s greater proof that it’s a compulsion, I can’t imagine what it might be.
We often think that filmmakers (especially writer/directors) have a single trajectory defined by their earliest work, but that definitely wasn’t the case here. Shyamalan was once prematurely called “the next Hitchcock,” but it’s hard to imagine the true master of suspense making something this lip-numbingly sugary, even considering the era he worked in. No one says “Aw shucks,” in Wide Awake or anything, but Josh’s grandfather does step in to Derek Redmond him across the finish line when he trips during an elementary school 50-yard dash, and you don’t have to squint to see the little brat go on to live a blissful life with all his questions answered.
Wide Awake wasn’t Shyamalan’s first film. That honor goes to Praying with Anger, a personal project about a young Indian American man finding himself when he returns to the subcontinent, which wasn’t seen much out of the festival circuit. It was an artifact of a time in indie cinema where you could make a poorly shot, relatively broad, not particularly notable film and somehow segue its film fest appearances into a job with Miramax making a bubble gum family film for $6m.
I still firmly believe that Shyamalan needs to make a solid thriller without a twist to regain our attention by disproving his reliance on narrative gimmicks, but it’s possible – even likely – that his micro budget The Visit will put him on a road back to good graces. In the mean time, let’s celebrate his unusual road to Hollywood through his forgotten film, a slab of cheese that’s notable both because of how little it resembles the M. Night Shyamalan we know and for how much it anticipates him.
Looking back on it now, its biggest twist is his name popping up at the top of the credits.