What to Watch Verdict
David Oyelowo shows tremendous promise as a director with this affecting story about a family crisis and a young son's efforts to save his mother.
🌊 Oyelowo uses beautiful hand-drawn animation to create the world of Gunner's mind, giving audiences a more tangible sense of his imagination.
🌊 The director draws out measured, believable performances from everyone in the cast, especially his young stars.
🌊 The film follows in a well-established tradition of stories about dying parents and children discovering the perils of the adult world.
A story in the slightly formulaic mold of A Monster Calls, The Water Man follows a child who retreats desperately into a world of imagination when his mother falls ill. Where director J.A. Bayona’s film relies heavily on CGI pyrotechnics to bring alive the landscape that springs up inside his young protagonist’s mind, director David Oyelowo taps into a more poetic balance between the unfamiliar natural world that surrounds his boy and a hand-drawn imagination that gives him solace. Making his directorial debut, Oyelowo treads lightly in this fantasy family tearjerker, while coaching himself, Rosario Dawson and young Lonnie Chavis, as his escapist hero, to naturalistic and compelling performances.
Chavis (This Is Us) plays Gunner Boone, a budding artist with a restless intellect living in a sleepy town with a distant father, Amos (Oyelowo), and a sick mom, Mary (Dawson). Mary cared for him as a child, nurturing his gifts in science and art, but as he grows increasingly aware of her illness, he focuses on books and a self-developed graphic novel to keep himself occupied. Amos, worried about Mary and carrying the weight of years of Naval service that forced him to leave home, struggles to relate to Gunner, lashing out at the boy in response to his sadness and anxiety in lieu of the patience he shows Mary. But when a latchkey schoolmate named Jo (Amiah Miller) tells the story of a local legend called The Water Man, he becomes obsessed with this mysterious figure’s supposed power to possess — and maybe even grant — eternal life.
Reaching out to a local mortician, Jim (Alfred Molina), who has studied The Water Man across his entire life, Gunner obtains a map leading into the nearby woods where the figure was reportedly spotted. He recruits Jo to go with him into the forest after she reveals she’s encountered him, earning a scar on her neck for her bravery, and he leaves a note for his mother promising to find the secret to saving her life. When Amos finds the note, he panics and contacts the authority to locate his lost child; but as Gunner and Jo encounter a series of unexplained phenomena in the woods, seemingly proving The Water Man’s existence, their quest takes on dire stakes after a forest fire engulfs the countryside, forcing Amos to race into action to save his son at the same time that Gunner seeks a way to save his mother.
Executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and originally intended for distribution by Walt Disney Pictures before RLJE Films, the saddest thing about The Water Man is that it is unlikely to generate the same attention it would have previously gotten with its former release partner — for good and bad, including the illness of Mary, Gunner’s angelic mom. In a world with lots and lots of movies about children dealing with loss and death at the dawn of their adolescent awareness (among them the aforementioned A Monster Calls but also the wonderful, underrated Bridge to Terabithia), one focused on a black family stands out for a lot of good reasons, not the least of which that as director Oyelowo acknowledges that racial truth but does not make it the fulcrum for its drama. Simultaneously, he offers a story about a family struggling to come together under imminently tragic circumstances, and a parent-child relationship seeking reconciliation rather than framed by conflict.
Oyelowo’s treatment of the mythical elements of the story are subtle and effective, capturing the way that children fill in explanations to justify phenomena they don’t understand without simply trying to create spectacle as a filmmaker. But between his own performance, which carries the restless and frustrated energy of a husband trying to protect his wife from further harm by trying to keep their worry-magnet child in line, and those of Chavis and Miller as the tween adventurers, Oyelowo proves himself to be a gifted shepherd to help his costars draw out the sentiment that other filmmakers treat like nails to a hammer. Miller, known for her role as the mute human Nova in War For The Planet Of The Apes, exudes a more than a little bit of the world weary energy of a young Jodie Foster; but Chavis conveys precisely the right kind of youthful inquisitiveness as Gunner, exploring this unlikely myth with the precision and care of an empiricist trying desperately to prove a theory about which he’s unsure.
Dawson similarly strikes her “perfect dying mom” notes with the right level of delicacy, but what’s interesting is how his situation sparks the story but it remains the father-son connection that drives it, additionally keeping the film from just being a bit of tragedy porn for family audiences. But aside from the film’s skillful brevity — it clocks in at just over 90 minutes — Oyelowo deploys Emma Needell’s script with a rewarding precision that, again, folds in a lot of racial and cultural subtexts that give its story a resonance for adults even as their young counterparts thrill at the modest misadventures of the child protagonists. Ultimately, The Water Man is an understated and effective film about the power of myths to draw out greater truth, marking a promising debut for Oyelowo behind the camera that deserves to lead to more and bigger opportunities.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.