Synopsis: A boy sets out on a quest to save his ill mother by searching for a mythic figure said to have magical healing powers.
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello
Director: David Oyelowo
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: It wasn’t that long ago I was talking about actors trying their hand at directing and how some take their time to move behind the scenes. Robin Wright made her feature film debut with the small indie Land which was practically a one-woman show and now there’s David Oyelowo arriving with his own directorial unveiling. While both have had formidable careers throughout the past four decades (Wright is actually entering her fifth), it’s interesting to see them both challenging themselves on their first time up to bat in the big leagues with material that mines detailed and emotionally taxing ground.
Thankfully, the skill that has assisted the likes of Oyelowo in his impressive list of credits makes him an ideal match for The Water Man, a coming-of-age family drama with a bit of folklore magic thrown in for good measure. Working from an original script by Emily A. Needell (also making her full-length debut after several shorts she wrote/directed received some attention), Oyelowo calls in a few favors to gather a cast with some credibility and lucks out in finding that all-important unicorn in films centered on children: young actors that can actually act without coming off cloying or who grow to be intolerable by the end.
Young Gunner (the warm and winning Lonnie Chavis) has found an outlet for his artistic energy and a retreat from a darkness looming in his home within the comic books he has been creating. Unprepared to accept his young mother (Rosario Dawson, Trance) is terminally ill with leukemia and unable to discuss his feelings with his retired military father (Oyelowo, Chaos Walking) recently back from a long stretch overseas, Gunner fixates on a legend in his small town that has piqued his curiosity. The tale of The Water Man that supposedly lives in the forest has been passed down through generations but while some elements have changed, one has not: The Water Man can cure disease and stave off death.
Convinced finding The Water Man will be the solution his mother desperately needs, Gunner teams up with Jo (Amiah Miller, War for the Planet of the Apes), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who he’s heard has firsthand knowledge of the mysterious figure. At first reluctant to do anything to help this younger kind, teenage Jo strikes a bargain with Gunner to bring him to the man he seeks. As Jo and Gunner head into the woods and begin an adventure that will put them in the way of various outdoor elements and challenges they couldn’t imagine, Gunner’s dad works with the local sheriff (Maria Bello, Prisoners) and an unkempt town historian (Alfred Molina, The Devil Has a Name) to find the children before they run into danger.
Though The Water Man is being billed as a film for families, I would caution parents to give this one a second thought before showing this to young and/or impressionable children until you’re able to have a discussion with them about its themes. Needell’s script has a sweet and subtle way of going about talking on tough topics like impending grief and loss but those are ideas which could be hard to grasp for children too young. For everyone else, Oyelowo’s film winds up to be a film with real spirit and an amiable charm that casts a warm glow over its brief run time.
It would have been great to see the film’s final act match the strength of what had come before but the magic of Needell’s script can only cast a spell for so long. When it breaks, it tends to create a vacuum that a number of other pieces of The Water Man begin to get sucked away into. Suddenly, the performances feel a little wooden and everyone is trying too had to make their final emotions count and that doesn’t jive with the laid-back style that came naturally in the previous 75 minutes. It should be said that Oyelowo ends the film right where he should and follows it with a well-done end credits sequence over which a song written and sung by his honey-voiced wife plays.
Not the type of film that lingers long in the memory, mostly because nearly everything about it feels like standard storytelling, just done better than most, The Water Man is short enough to fill your cup but not quite to overflowing. If anything, it demonstrates that Oyelowo has taken much of what he’s learned as a respected craftsman in his field and applied that to his work as a freshman director. It can come off at times like an artist up to bat for the first time, but this is a solid double for those playing at home.