The Water Man (2020) – the directorial debut of David Oyelowo – is a family-friendly, coming-of-age fantasy adventure that occupies the middle ground between Stand by Me (1986) and Bridge to Terabithia (2007).
Gunner Boone is a young boy with an adventurous spirit. He reads Sherlock Holmes and travels around his local town on an electric scooter, conducting research for a graphic novel about a detective who is investigating his own death.
Just another ghost story?
We see the world through Gunner’s eyes – a bit of a loner, absorbing the world around him and translating it as comic book fiction onto the page. He is very close to his mum (Rosario Dawson) who, we learn, is very ill. But he feels distant from his dad, who struggles to show affection towards his son.
It is during one of his scooter rides that Gunner happens upon a group of kids discussing ‘The Water Man’, a mystical figure (or “just some stupid ghost story” as one character puts it). An enterprising young girl with a scar on her neck, Jo (Amiah Miller), charges to tell stories about him – this mysterious entity with supposed healing powers. Powers that could, perhaps, help Gunner’s mum.
Consequently, an unlikely alliance is formed between the spiky, streetwise Jo and the selfless, good-natured Gunner as they go into the woods in search of the elusive ‘Water Man’.
“Hope is a powerful force”
Gunner is played by Lonnie Chavis, an astonishing young actor who is at the heart of the film. He is a compelling and natural screen presence, imbuing Gunner with maturity and decency.
Oyelowo features in a supporting role as Gunner’s father, portraying a good man caring for his ailing wife with a strict stoicism that has the unintended effect of alienating his son.
There is a quiet dignity in Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of Gunner’s mother, loving her son and instilling a gentleness in Gunner’s attitude, all the while trying to protect him from the realities of her illness. It is the early scenes between Gunner and his mother that set the tone for what I consider to be the underlying theme of the film: there is always hope no matter the circumstances.
This attitude is what motivates Gunner’s inquisitive nature, and his desire to do whatever he can to help his family’s situation. It is with this mindset that he researches alternative medication that may ease his mother’s pain. It is with this mindset that he and Jo face their quest with fierce determination, unheeding of the dangers.
Spielberg-esque: a collision of fantasy and reality
Stylistically, The Water Man (2020) has a Spielberg-esque quality to its aesthetic and storytelling, not only in the fantastical nature of its premise – which, in places, reminded me of J. J. Abrams‘ affectionate Spielberg homage Super 8 (2011) – but more notably with regard to the struggles between father and son; a hallmark of much of Spielberg’s work.
Emma Needell’s screenplay (her first full-length feature) deftly treads the line between conveying the wonder of a child’s imagination and the realities of the world we live in without resorting to mawkishness. This is particularly evident in the contrast between the central characters.
In the case of a meeting with Alfred Molina‘s Mr Bussey, once a funeral director, now someone who has potential information about the whereabouts of the ‘Water Man’, Gunner’s youthful idealism pictures their conversation in the manner of his own graphic novel; swirling line drawings coming to life.
In a slightly underwritten role, Amiah Miller’s Jo is the product of a neglected upbringing. She is left to her own devices; a scavenger and survivor. Jo is full of bravado, but is initially slightly distrustful and suspicious of Gunner.
It is a collision of fantasy and reality.
A showcase for the talents of Chavis and Oyelowo
Miller and Chavis work well together on screen, but The Water Man (2020) is nevertheless a showcase for the engaging performance of Chavis, who deserves to be recognised for a convincing and mature performance.
Credit to David Oyelowo also, whose direction gives the film a wide, cinematic scope that belies its intimate setting, crafting a wondrous and thought-provoking film with a message that lingers long after the credits roll.
IMDb score: 5.9 | Film Forums: 8.0
Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of RLJE Films / Katrina Wan PR