A 12-year-old boy heads into the Oregon woods in search of a mythic creature he thinks has the healing power to save his dying mother.
That’s the premise behind “The Water Man,” a deeply felt family adventure, touched by the supernatural. Executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, the film marks a heartfelt directing debut for David Oyelowo, best known for his brilliant portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King in “Selma.”
The British-Nigerian actor also takes on the role of Amos Boone, a career military man stationed in Japan who has just moved his family to Pine Mills, a small logging town in the Pacific Northwest, where his wife Mary (Rosario Dawson at her loveliest) tries to hide her advancing stages of leukemia from their son, Gunner (Lonnie Chavis).
Chavis, a breakout on “This Is Us,” where he plays the younger version of Sterling K. Brown’s character, is exceptionally fine as a boy who buries his head in detective stories and graphic novels to avoid facing impending tragedy. Chavis does wonders with his eyes, which show the pain Gunner hides over his helplessness to rescue his mother.
It’s the tale of the Water Man, told to him by a local mortician (Alfred Molina), that sparks hope in Gunner. The legend stems from a miner whose home was swept away in a flood. The miner might have died if not for a magical ore. His wife remains missing. And so, for decades, the so-called Water Man roams the forest to find her body and use the ore to restore her to life.
Finding the ore also becomes Gunner’s mission, as he leaves a note for his parents, steals his dad’s souvenir samurai sword to fight any lurking monsters and sets off in the company of Jo (a livewire Amiah Miller), a girl who is homeless and tells Gunner she knows how to find the Water Man.
Is she lying? Is there magic in the world or simply reality waiting to crush it? “The Water Man” grapples with these questions, which sometimes slows the film’s pace but more often deepens its emotional reach.
Working from a subtle script by Emma Needell, Oyelowo contrasts Gunner’s quest with the quest of his parents to find him. As a wildfire begins to incinerate the forest (talk about timely), Amos rushes toward the blaze with the local sheriff (Maria Bello). Oyelowo brings the forest alive with its teeming insect life, raging rapids and encroaching flames.
But make no mistake. it’s the feelings lying underneath that give the film its staying power. Delicate business is being transacted here as a child is forced to deal with adversity, sacrifice, grief and an adult world that too often resists understanding.
“As a father of four children I want to share films with my kids that both entertain and equip them for the highs and lows that lie ahead," Oyelowo said in a director's statement. "I relish watching films with them that both transport our family to a different world and then leave us having meaningful conversations.”
Oyelowo has done just that by crafting a film that is less about showing off than showing the way toward am empathetic meeting of the minds between parents and children. For family audiences, “The Water Man” is an exhilarating gift.