With its slightly enlarged heart in the right place, the directing debut from actor David Oyelowo, The Water Man, is an engaging, creative family drama with flashes of fantasy to keep younger audiences interested and awake. The film focuses on young Gunner (Lonnie Chavis, This Is Us), a teenager who is also a would-be graphic novel writer and artist. He’s currently working on an ambitious detective story about an investigator who solves crime from beyond the grave. His mother Mary (Rosario Dawson) is dying of leukemia, while father Amos (Oyelowo) is slowly losing his mind and temper as he is forced to watch his wife’s slow, painful decline.
Being relatively new to the town of Pine Mills, Gunner is late to discover the local myth of the Water Man, who is said to still stalk the nearby Wild Horse forest, as he has for several hundred years, living forever thanks to a magical rock in his possession but forced to watch everyone he cars about die over the centuries. After talking to a local recluse and Water Man expert (Alfred Molina), Gunner becomes determined to go into the forest in search of this stone, which he believes may be the key to saving his mother.
Gunner enlists the help of another teenager, a girl named Jo (Amiah Miller, the young girl from War for the Planet of the Apes), who claims to not only know the location of the Water Man but also takes money from Gunner to take him though the woods to the being’s home. With limited supplies and a wildfire heading in their general direction, the young pair head off through the forest, guided as much by Gunner’s creative spirit as Jo’s knowledge of anything having to do with the Water Man. When Amos realizes his son has run away, he heads out in pursuit, with the assistance of the local sheriff (played by Maria Bello) and being careful not to tell his ailing wife.
The Water Man follows Gunner and Jo on their quest, which may or may not be more of a flight of fancy than a search for anything real or life-saving. What they encounter along the way is a combination of danger, mystery, and magic borne of Gunner’s determination and imagination. The fuel that drives him is pure emotion—the love he feels for his mother and the fear he’s experiencing at the thought of losing her. A great deal of the movie also concerns the broken bond between father and son, who need to fix what is fractured since they will need each other a great deal very soon. The fantastical elements are key to what works in the film, but Oyelowo makes sure he keeps them grounded in reality for reasons that eventually become clear.
The film gets a bit precious and self-aware at times, but as mentioned, there’s something about its good intentions that wins out over overt corniness in the end. Both young actors are quite good in their decidedly underwritten roles (courtesy of screenwriter Emily A. Needell), as we watch both of them rise above the limitation of the material. The Water Man is a flawed yet largely satisfying effort.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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