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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 03/26/1998,

Wide Awake

Just what I need, a film that embodies two of my worst phobias in one role: Rosie O'Donnell as a nun. She's Sister Terry, a wise, irreverent nun with a sports fetish in an idealized Catholic junior high school, and like M. Night Shyamalan's Wide Awake, in which she stars, she's a lot less excruciating than expected. The film's premise sounds dreadful: cherubic 10-year-old Joshua Beal (an ingratiating up-and-comer named Joseph Cross) has a crisis of faith when his beloved grandfather (Robert Loggia) dies of cancer. Sustained by Grandpa's assurance that "God will take care of me," Joshua nonetheless wants to make sure. So he sets out to find God -- through signs, alternative religions, confrontations with his ministers on earth -- to see to it that the old man, not to mention the whole world, is still okay.

So far it sounds like something John Hughes might have pulled off after ill-advisedly attending an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. But Shyamalan, for whom this story is loosely autobiographical, glows, for better and worse, with earnestness while retaining the skewed trace of apostasy typical of Catholic-school veterans. The latter sensibility is embodied in the weirdo student whose kidnapping of a portrait of the pope leads to one of Joshua's epiphanies. It's furthered by O'Donnell, whose appearance is brief, restrained, and thornily hilarious in a tête-à-tête with Joshua about his quest. At the Harvard Square and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

-- Peter Keough