A Look Back: The Sixth Sense

If your bright but friendless child begins to tell you that he sees ghosts, you have a choice of a few options. You can consult an exorcist, but most parents would probably prefer to talk to said child first, then perhaps seek professional help, either in the form of a counselor or, as Toni Collette does for her son (Haley Joel Osment) in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” a psychologist with issues of his own (Bruce Willis). “The Sixth Sense,” turned out to be quite a success the year it came out, becoming the second-highest grossing film of 1999, and garnering a host of Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Osment. It also became one of those “twist” movies, although it had nothing to do with anyone waking up realizing they were dreaming, or turning out to be of the opposite gender (“The Crying Game”).

In “the Sixth Sense,” Toni plays a loving but beleaguered single mother whose son eventually confides in her that he can see dead people – only they don’t yet know that they’re dead. Luckily for her, she manages to find just the guy to straighten out her son: Bruce Willis, who we’ve met in the opening scene, as he is confronted by a former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) and then shot. A year later, Bruce and Haley meet, and predictably, Bruce, although sympathetic, does not believe Haley. But the viewer has already been treated to a sampling of Haley’s visions, which seem pretty real – or at least real to his character. However, as Bruce begins to get to know his client, he comes to change his mind. Meanwhile, as Haley is terrifying his Catholic school teacher (Bruce Norris) with imitations of the man’s childhood stutter, and dealing with bullying and derision from his perplexed peers, a certain situation in which he might be able to help a ghost arises. Said ghost is a “deceased” young girl (Mischa Barton), who has a whopper of a secret about her mom (hint: it has to do with Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy), and eventually, Haley succeeds in helping her – or more accurately, her younger sister.

As Haley, encouraged by Bruce, becomes more proactive (so to speak) about dealing with unexpected spirits popping up everywhere he goes, he begins to fit in better with his peers, even getting the lead in the class play. This is, of course, quite a different route than undergoing a makeover, mastering the martial arts, or winning the Big Game, but it works. Toward the end, we realize the twist (unless you’re smarter than I was and figured it out much earlier): is that Bruce, himself, is a ghost. Like all therapist-client movie relationships, it turns out to be mutually beneficial, as Bruce reconciles with his wife (Olivia Williams) with whom he had a strained relationship, as well as moving on from his conflict with Donnie (who, he realizes, also shares Haley’s gift).

The director made a movie prior to “The Sixth Sense.” called “Wide Awake,” about an adorable preteen boy (Joseph Cross) in Catholic school who learns life lessons, helped by a baseball-loving nun (Rosie O’Donnell). Perhaps the next step was to add a supernatural aspect to this setting. It works again, and I must say, after all these years, young Mischa Barton still makes one scary ghost.

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