Scott Hardie: “It was ok.”
By his third major release, M. Night Shyamalan was already starting to seem like a hack whose only real talent was in disguising his pedestrian material with a high-gloss professionalism. This film, made in 1997 but seen by me now for the first time, drives the point home. He's got plenty of skill as a director, but his weakness is his screenwriting, which reminds me of the kind of amateurish material I wrote in junior high school: Meticulously plotted and affecting a grown-up air, secretly paranoid that no one will realize how ordinary it is, and indulgently self-impressed. I look forward to the day, should it ever come, when Shyamalan directs from someone else's (good) script. Then I think he'll really be on to something.
That's not to say that the film lacks charms, just that it packs in too many artificial ones. Robert Loggia is convincing as the grandfather beloved enough to put the plot in motion, and even if young Joseph Cross is given impossibly complex monologues for a fifth-grader, he at least gets credit for refusing to overplay any of them. (It struck me that he probably auditioned for "The Sixth Sense," and would have been good in it.) There's some genuinely funny material here, and occasionally touching as well. The film has the overbearing foreshadowing typical of its genre, but when it comes to the payoff, it's surprisingly restrained and casual about it. There's not even the worst element of children's films, the obligatory victory scene of throngs of children cheering at the tops of their lungs for the hero! (On the other hand, it does have that desperately overeager musical score that feels compelled to put an underline, circle, and exclamation point on every emotional cue, the seocnd-worst element of children's films.)
On the whole, this is a near miss, a film that just isn't genuine enough to be taken seriously. But it's not bad if you're in the need for a warm comedy about Catholic school - and who isn't? - and those viewers who still believe in Shyamalan will find things to like.