THE WATER MAN | ©2021 RLJE Films

Rating: PG
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello
Writer: Emma Needell
Director: David Oyelowo
Distributor: RLJE Films
Release Date: May 7, 2021

THE WATER MAN is one of those family films that may actually play better for adults. (This reviewer, at least, can appreciate this sort of storytelling better now than in childhood.)

The Boone family has recently moved to the small, scenic town of Pine Mills in Cascade County, Oregon. Preteen Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) has yet to make friends his own age, but he’s busy writing and drawing a graphic novel about a ghostly detective investigating his own murder.

Dad Amos (David Oyelowo, who is also the film’s director) has recently returned from Navy duty in Japan. He has brought back a samurai sword, which captures Gunner’s imagination. Mom Mary (Rosario Dawson) maintains a cheerful demeanor, despite being gravely ill.

Gunner, increasingly worried about his mother’s health, is fascinated by the local legend of the Water Man, a supposedly immortal figure with “fire on his chest and hope in his eyes.” The Water Man is said to possess the power to resurrect the dead.

When Mary takes a turn for the worse, Gunner decides to seek out the Water Man in his rumored domain in the woods outside of town. Gunner pays local teen Jo (Amiah Miller), who claims to have seen the Water Man, to lead the way.

As a filmmaker, Oyelowo has an eye for lovely visuals and a good sense of flow. Working from Emma Needell’s screenplay, he keeps a sense of open possibilities, so that we’re not absolutely positive as to where this is all going. Having Gunner’s drawings (the artwork is actually by Dan Schaefer) come to life in simple animation is a good touch.

There are, however, some missteps. Much is made of a scar on Jo’s neck, but we can barely see it. Also, without giving away too much, the narrative is of the sort that used to frustrate young readers. It may be that young people today have different tastes, or it may be that this sort of active but gentle approach to a particular message is really better suited to grownups.

Chavis is a winning young actor who thoroughly inhabits Gunner. Miller has the kind of charisma that we can see impacting Gunner, without it feeling romantic. The nuances of their relationship are handled with becoming delicacy.

Oyelowo and Dawson offer strong support, as does Alfred Molina as the local mortician and Maria Bello as a sympathetic sheriff.

THE WATER MAN is a warm, pleasant fable-tinged drama. It feels familiar, but it’s done well and with care.

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