The Water Man
2021, PG-13, 91 min. Directed by David Oyelowo. Starring Maria Bello, Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina, David Oyelowo, Amiah Miller, Lonnie Chavis.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 7, 2021
From The Bye Bye Man to Come Play, mysterious urban legends have become a mainstay of modern horror films. However, most such stories are told by kids to kids as a way of dealing with the strains of growing up. In his directorial debut, David Oyelowo reclaims the form in a story that is closer to the edge-of-adulthood folklore of Bridge to Terebithia and the grief-wracked A Monster Calls.
Those films were clearly touchstones for last year's clumsy Come Away in which Oyelowo starred: Mercifully, he has a less candy-coated and empty-headed vision of the cusp between reality and fantasy when handling the story of classic brave boy, Gunner (Chavis). A budding young artist, the diagnosis of his mother (Dawson) with leukemia sends this imaginative young comic creator into the woods in search of a mythical figure, the Water Man. Legend has it that he was a miner who found a stone that can cure death, but has spent the centuries looking for his lost love, in hopes of bringing her back from the beyond. At least, that's what he's told by the local mortician (Molina) and a runaway called Jo (Miller), who tells him that not only does she know about the Water Man, but she can take him deep into the forest, to the lost town of Wildhorse where he lives.
There's a simple magic about The Water Man, a story about stories and how we use them to comfort ourselves. It's also a story of family, especially the complicated ones bonds between fathers and sons. Oyelowo gives a depth and nuance to Amos as a husband and dad trying to hold everyone together as his world falls apart. As Gunner sets off into the woods in search of a cure for his mother, Amos tries to protect his wife Mary from reality and launches his own hunt for his son. He grounds the story in the complexities of life, while Gunner flees with his streetwise guide and a borrowed sword on a classical hero's quest.
It's on that quest that the magic of The Water Man is found, through a combination of animated sequences translating Gunner's art into motion, and events just strange enough to leave the audience wondering whether there really is something wonderous in the forest. The Water Man plays with the conventions of fantasy, as Chavis' perfectly wide-eyed Gunner is taken on a strange, winding path by Miller's suitably roguish and spiky Jo. In a time when happy endings seem in short supply, The Water Man's sense of heroic wonder is the kid-sized epic we need.