The Water Man is the kind of movie that could go in several directions. With elements of the hero’s journey, a coming-of-age story and a fairy tale, actor David Oyelowo’s feature directorial debut, is ultimately a throwback to ’80s family films like The Goonies, E.T. and Labyrinth. The movie centers on young Gunner Boone (This Is Us‘s Lonnie Chavis), an imaginative boy whose mother Mary (Rosario Dawson) is seriously ill.
After moving to a small town, Gunner quickly learns about the local legend of the Water Man, someone who supposedly defied death and is still lurking in the nearby forest. Desperate to save his mother, Gunner sets out on a journey to locate the Water Man with the help of a girl named Jo (Amiah Miller), who claims she knows where to find him. Yet, as they travel deeper into the woods, things get stranger and more dangerous, leaving Gunner’s determined father (Oyelewo) as their only hope of rescue.
Emma Needell’s script, which was on the 2015 Black List, includes a number of familiar but entertaining elements, from Gunner and Jo’s exciting, sometimes dangerous, adventure in the forest to the exploration of the deep, but not always easy, love between parents and their children. Chavis and Miller are well cast and do a good job playing off each other, however their transition from uneasy allies to close friends is a bit too abrupt to be believable. Meanwhile, Oyelowo gives a solid performance as Gunner’s overwhelmed father, but it’s Dawson who’s really the heart of the movie. Dawson never milks her character’s plight for sympathy or overplays her illness, yet still makes it easy to understand why Gunner would be so desperate to save her by showing Mary’s fundamental kindness and sensitivity.
Still, the story doesn’t always hang together as well as it should. The movie does a poor job integrating its fantasy elements into the grounded reality most of the characters occupy. And the seriousness of the kids’ journey is often undercut by interludes in which they make fun of each other for minor things that aren’t nearly as hilarious as the characters seem to believe. In addition, it’s hard to understand why Gunner often seems so naïve when his intelligence is emphasized at different points. These things, along with a slow-to-start beginning and softball ending, make The Water Man less powerful than the old-school family films that came before it.
On the other hand, the movie is a visual feast. The cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd subtly uses light to create images that look and feel magical, and the forest’s natural beauty makes it seem like a place of both danger and possibility. In addition, the costumes by Nadine Haders and the production design by Laurence Bennett emphasize bold primary colors, leading to a film that’s colorful and warm. The movie also makes good use of black and white animation to tell the origin story of the Water Man, a choice that enables the legend to stand in contrast to the film’s live-action scenes.
The Water Man is a respectable directorial debut for Oyelowo. He’s created a family film that’s likely to capture the imagination of many kids, even if it doesn’t cast as potent a spell on adults. It’ll be exciting to see where his directing career takes him next.