David Oyelowo made his feature directorial debut at TIFF with The Water Man, a kid-adventure story that is a little bit The Goonies, a little bit Stand By Me, and a lot The Bridge to Terabithia. Oyelowo sets a decent-sized task for himself, tackling not only an emotional family-in-crisis story, but The Water Man also embraces fantasy elements like animated sequences and big pyrotechnic sequences, but he handles it with aplomb. The Water Man is nice to look at, with a couple particularly pretty sequences, and one scene toward the end that perfectly balances between just scary enough to stand out but not too frightening for small children. This is, after all, a film that is meant to be watched by families, so nothing can be too graphic or scary, but The Water Man treats its lore with the respect creepy local legends deserve.
The film, written by Emily Needell, centers on Gunner (Lonnie Chavis, This is Us), who has recently moved to the Pacific Northwest. His father, Amos (Oyelowo), is in the Navy, and his mother, Mary (Rosario Dawson), is sick. Gunner rides around town on an electric scooter and his only friend is the local bookshop owner who happily lends him stacks upon stacks of books. Gunner is a thoroughly Movie Kid, terribly precocious and wise beyond his years. He’s also some kind of genius, devouring books on cancer and medicine in order to tell the nurses what to prescribe his mother, and he is ALSO drawing and writing a graphic novel about a ghost detective solving his own murder (honestly, I’d read that). Gunner is the same kind of genius movie kid we last saw in The Book of Henry, which is not a great association, but at least Gunner has believable emotional reactions to his situation.
Distressed by his mother’s worsening condition, Gunner fixates on a local urban legend about “the Water Man”, who allegedly survived a flood that washed away a town. They say the Water Man has a special rock that preserved his life when everyone else, including his wife, drowned in the flood, and Gunner wants to find him and get the special rock to save Mary. Despite Gunner’s intelligence, this is exactly the kind of dumb kid logic that leads to many great movie adventures (see also: “let’s find that pirate treasure to save our town” and “if we win the ski competition, the developers will leave the mountain”). He is encouraged on his trip by a local eccentric (Alfred Molina), and it feels like something has been cut from this part of the plot. Alfred Molina is not an actor you hire to do one exposition scene, but that is basically all he does here. Similarly underserved is Maria Bello as the local sheriff.
Gunner teams up with Jo (Amiah Miller, House by the Lake), a juvenile delinquent who claims to know where the Water Man is. She is obviously scamming the local kids out of their lunch money, but Gunner is desperate, and this emotional core works well enough to make Gunner’s flight into the forest believable. Gunner has zero control over anything happening in his life, and he is watching his mother fade away while it seems like every adult gives up. He isn’t close to his father, which only adds to his anxiety, because what will his life be like when there is only Amos to care for him? Gunner may be obnoxiously precocious, but outside of his bossy attitude toward nurses, he is a convincingly reactive child grasping for any sense of control in his life.
Without making a spectacle of Mary’s deterioration and with sensitivity toward the desperation and grief of a child, Oyelowo crafts a family-friendly film that deals in grief in a slightly whimsical but grounded way. Is The Water Man a little schmaltzy? Sure. But this is the kind of schmaltz white kids have gotten to indulge for generations in cinema, so not unlike Concrete Cowboy, I don’t begrudge it being applied to a Black child. I don’t know who The Water Man appeals to outside of hardcore David Oyelowo fans and families looking for heartfelt entertainment, but if you fall into either of those camps, then this is the film for you. The rest of us can cross our fingers and hope Oyelowo tackles a horror movie someday. That scene with the drowned man is just creepy enough to be promising.