Written by: Robin C. Farrell | May 7th, 2021
The Water Man (David Oyelowo, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Between the new family in town, the somewhat-haunted forest, a local legend, one dying parent, an estranged relationship with the other, and running away from home, one might expect The Water Man to feel like a bundle of strewn-together clichés. Instead, David Oyelowo’s directorial feature debut is a well-paced and cohesive expedition into that strange and wondrous place where imagination meets reality.
In The Water Man, Gunner (Lonnie Chavis, Sunny Daze) is adjusting both to a new home and to having his father, Amos, (Oyelowo, Queen of Katwe) back in his life. When his mother’s illness takes a turn for the worse, Gunner first turns to research, then investigates the local superstition of the “Water Man,” a mythic, immortal figure still residing in the forest. With the help of Jo (Amiah Miller, Anastasia: Once Upon A Time), a local girl with insight into where to find this mysterious figure, Gunner sets off into the woods. All the while, a wildfire threatens their quest and Amos is determined to find them before it’s too late.
It all works due to the masterful pacing. The severity of family strain and disease is properly realized, more than enough to justify Gunner’s all-in determination to save his mother (Rosario Dawson, Unforgettable), but Oyelowo never belabors the point. Gunner is established early on as a talented artist, a writer, a child with a vivid imagination, and also an advanced academic. These might have clashed or taken too much screen time, but it’s all conveyed fluidly and in service of the story. Likewise, Chavis portrays Gunner with a believable harmony of naïveté, intellect and wisdom.
The balance between realism and fantasy makes the film supremely watchable. The line blurs between real and imaginary, but the adventure never delves too far into the absurd. Certain fanciful elements weave into the more grounded moments and, through Gunner’s perspective, we get something of the increasingly popular unreliable narrator. Even more effective are the distinct point of view shifts between Gunner and Amos, with the visual styles differing in subtle but distinct ways that start to blend the closer the two get to one another, both geographically and spiritually.
This all builds towards a climax that does take a substantial dip into the extraordinary (even a bit creepy), but even at its most outrageous – even as the magical undercurrent surges to the forefront – Oyelowo knows just when and how to pull back. The theme and message are what matter here. After a brief moment of slightly clunky explanation, you’re swept back up into the story and the meaning underneath. The Water Man may have some flaws here and there, but the overall takeaway is a message about the importance of actively loving one another, which could easily have strayed towards saccharine, but succeeds in being sincere, gratifying, and may leave you a bit misty-eyed.