While The Water Man is out on Netflix in the UK today, the directorial debut from David Oyelowo first came out at the Toronto Film Festival in 2020 which took place online due to the global health crisis. Now, though, movie lovers all over have a chance to watch the family fantasy drama.
The film stars This Is Us' Lonnie Chavis as the young Gunner Boone, whose mother Mary (Rosario Dawson, The Mandalorian) is dying of leukaemia. Living with a fraught relationship with his father Amos (Oyelowo), a Navy veteran, Gunner is also traumatised by his mother's illness.
Misfit youngster Jo (Amiah Miller, War For the Planet of the Apes) leads Gunner to the mysterious Wild Horse woods in search of The Water Man, a mythical figure said to possess the gift of eternal life. The premise itself isn't wholly unique – from Pan's Labyrinth to A Monster Calls, children's imagination coping with imminent death is a theme that has been explored time and time again.
What each film does is seek to tease out a distinct lesson at the end. The Water Man is less concerned with the end goal, though, and more with the journey the characters (particularly Amos and Gunner) take to get there.
For Oyelowo's part, he plays a distant and equally traumatised father with deft nuance. Even pushed to the breaking point of his own abilities as a father and husband, you find yourself empathising with his plight. As a nearly-fridged mom Mary, Dawson retains a sense of humour and pathos.
Jo is probably the least interesting of the bunch – a two-dimensional misfit-cum-sherpa whose story isn't quite fleshed out enough to make us empathise with her brusqueness nor revel in her story's eventual arc. This is less a failing of Miller's, and rather the tight runtime to which The Water Man (thankfully) adheres.
But Chavis is really the star of The Water Man. His role as young Randall in This Is Us has already shown audiences he's a capable young actor. As Gunner, though he's hamstrung by some clunky dialogue, Chavis' talents come out bodily, in the way he interacts both literally and physically with the world – real and imagined – around him.
The Water Man isn't as much of a tear-jerker as This Is Us, which is a welcome break for those who know and love the show. Unlike other family dramas in which a parent is dying, there isn't another evil against which the young protagonist must struggle.
It is simply fear of loss that Gunner is trying to thwart. There's no evil stepmother and even Amos' occasionally transgressions are not unforgivable.
The downside of this is that the stakes for Gunner's journey feel somehow less serious, and the tension that should be there should his quest fail doesn't quite exist. We sort of always know that The Water Man isn't real, or at least can't do what Gunner wants him to.
For a film whose central message is that hope keeps us going, the audience can't quite make the suspension of disbelief work to hope that in the end Gunner is right, and there is a cure for his mother out there. Luckily, the end is happy (though not wholly conclusive) and you won't be left feeling betrayed or bereft.
The Water Man is now available to watch on Netflix.
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