Facing his mother’s worsening leukemia, a boy turns his curious mind from detective stories to supernatural lore in David Oyelowo’s The Water Man, a family adventure set against a lush Pacific Northwest backdrop. Doing double duty behind and in front of the camera (playing the boy’s father) Oyelowo is sure-footed in his feature directing debut, delivering a smart and wholesome picture with about as little sentimentality as such a tale can have.
Lonnie Chavis of This Is Us stars as Gunner Boone, whose name may have something to do with the fact that his father Amos (Oyelowo) is a career military man. More bookish than macho, the boy is working on a graphic novel while getting to know Pine Mills, the small logging town his family just moved to.
Amos has returned home from being stationed in Japan to care for his wife Mary (Rosario Dawson), who has so far kept her son from witnessing the most distressing symptoms of her illness. When the gravity of things really hits Gunner, he takes all the detective novels he’s borrowed from the local bookseller back and trades them for medical texts.
He stumbles onto a local legend about a ghost who haunts a nearby forest. As the local mortician (an underused Alfred Molina) explains, the Water Man was a miner whose home was destroyed in a flood while he slept. But a mysterious piece of ore brought him back to life, and he has spent decades looking for his wife’s body so he can resurrect her as well.
Desperate enough to try anything that might help his mom, Gunner leaves a note, grabs Dad’s souvenir samurai sword and heads into the woods, teaming with a homeless girl (Amiah Miller’s Jo) who claims to have met the Water Man and know how to find him. If the Water Man can bring woodland creatures back to life, surely he can save Mary.
Emma Needell’s debut script balances the worry Gunner leaves in his absence — where Amos, already guilty about snapping at his son, tries to find him while keeping Mary from learning he’s missing — with the kids’ just-scary-enough adventures. Swarms of crawling insects, rushing rapids and hunger all threaten them while a bigger threat lurks unseen.
In a sadly timely touch, the kids don’t know they’re hiking into a just-started wildfire, making things much more intense for Amos than for Gunner and Jo. Other connections to real-world dangers are much more subtle: Though nothing in the drama touches on race, a few quick scenes observe, without commentary, how the Boones’ life differs from those of their white neighbors. (In a scene where Gunner is willing to set a suspicious adult’s mind at ease while his white companion prefers defiance, of course, this difference may have as much to do with his being a serviceman’s son.)
Unexplained events in the woods keep the viewer wondering if this indeed is the kind of tale in which magic exists. The legend (retold with animation in the style of Gunner’s comics) is slightly meatier than a red herring needs to be, and Molina’s character certainly believes it, despite being a man of science. The story is all just noise to Amos and the sheriff (Maria Bello) trying to track the kids before they’re trapped in onrushing flames. But to viewers, especially younger ones, the uncertainty makes it even easier to identify with our young hero.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Events)
Production companies: Shivhans Pictures, Harpo Films, Yoruba Saxon
Cast: Lonnie Chavis, David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello
Director: David Oyelowo
Screenwriter: Emma Needell
Producers: David Oyelowo, Carla Gardini, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson
Executive producers: Oprah Winfrey, Darren M. Demetre, Connor Flanagan, Emma Needell
Director of photography: Matthew J. Lloyd
Production designer: Laurence Bennett
Costume designer: Nadine Haders
Editor: Blu Murray
Composer: Peter Baert
Casting director: Aisha Coley
Sales: Endeavor Content, CAA