For the past 20 years there has been a continual stream of movies and plays that portray Catholic schools in a negative light. The teachers are shown to be bullies and occasionally perverts; their faith is presented as rigid, narrow, and oppressive; and the students suffer deep psychological damage. These negative stereotypes seem particularly unfair since during this same time period all surveys on the Catholic educational system have emphasized its superiority to state-funded equivalents in almost every way.

Set against this anti-Catholic climate, Wide Awake is a welcome relief. This poignant, charming story chronicles a 10 year old's temporary loss of faith and his subsequent search for God, and it depicts parochial schools as well-run, emotionally nurturing institutions whose students get a first-class academic and moral education. The teachers, who are all priests and nuns, are good-humored and attentive to their charges’ needs.

As most of the action is set among fifth graders though, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (Praying With Anger) often treats his subject matter with a light touch. He gets plenty of laughs out of the students’ continual mistrust of authority. The film's tone is set in an early classroom scene. Josh Beal (Joseph Cross), who admits that “people think I ask too many questions,” unintentionally gives his religion teacher, Sister Terry (Rosie O'Donnell), a rough time. Sister Terry, who wears a baseball cap in class along with her habit, tries hard to connect with her students on their level. She describes Jesus as going up to bat and facing down the pitcher Judas.

The teachers, who are all priests and nuns, are good-humored and attentive to their charges'needs.

Her fifth-grade class has recently been given a reading assignment that suggests that people who aren't baptized may go to hell. Josh, always the diligent student, asks if he should immediately seek out and warn those family friends who are in that unblessed state. Following his lead, all the other students want to issue similar admonitions to the adults who haven't been baptized. Things start to spin out of control. But Sister Terry is finally able to persuade the class to hold off on the doom and gloom until the next session when she can explain the teaching in greater detail.

Josh has been raised in an affluent suburban Philadelphia household in which both his physician-parents (Dana Delany and Denis Leary) work. His best friend and constant companion is his grandpa (Robert Loggia). A rabid football fan and a practicing Catholic, he gives his grandson two pieces of advice: “Keep both hands on the ball, and hold on to your faith.’

Grandpa is stricken with bone cancer and, true to his word, continues to believe in God. When he dies, Josh seeks a sign that his grandfather is okay and has gone to heaven. Nothing is immediately forthcoming. So the boy emulates the methods of the video-game and TV space commanders who are his role models and embarks on “a mission” to find God.

Josh's parents correctly perceive his state of mind as related to the grieving process triggered by his grandfather's death. They don't pay much attention to his fifth-grade version of a theological quest. But when Josh wants to spend spring vacation in Rome, they figure out that his motive is to question the Pope, whom he describes as “God's best friend.’ The Beals, of course, never leave Philadelphia.

Josh is relentless. When his class goes to confession, he admits that usually “we make up stuff as if we're on-line.’ But this time he presses the priest (Dan Lauria) for some honest answers. The cleric is emotionally supportive while keeping the exchange on a spiritual level. He explains that doubt is often part of a person's search for faith and that Josh shouldn't be surprised that his faith is being tested.

The filmmaker skillfully incorporates the 10-year-old's religious quest into the normal processes of growing up. The young boy has just discovered the opposite sex and is comforted when the girl of his dreams shows sympathy for his plight.

Rumors circulate at school that a certain Cardinal Geary talks directly to God. Josh breaks all the rules and crashes a reception for the prelate at the girls’ parochial school. But when he corners the old man in the bathroom, he discovers that the cardinal is seriously ill and must take medication to get through the day's events. Josh has the tact to back off and not bombard him with questions.

He also learns to view his fellow students in a more charitable light. His best friend, Dave O'Hara (Timothy Reifsnyder) turns out to be more than a daredevil who lives in a mansion. The child is afflicted with epilepsy, and Josh is there to help him during one of his seizures.

At times both the school and its environs seem like a privileged enclave for the rich. But Josh gets his nose rubbed in the reality of the suburban rat race. A classmate, who often bullies him, is forced to leave school because his parents can no longer afford the tuition. The kid feels humiliated and rejected by his peers. Josh forgives his former nemesis for his acts of cruelty, and of all the students, only he seeks out the departing classmate to say good-bye.

In the end Josh is given a sign, and his faith is restored. Along the way he has gained from the quest a greater psychological maturity. It's presented as a normal part of growing up, and Catholic schools are shown to have a positive impact on the experience. Wide Awake is that rare film that both children and adults will find entertaining and enlightening.

Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.

Wide Awake is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America.

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Violence 3

Language 3

Nudity 3

Sexual content 3