I had been wanting to watch this film for some time as I’m a big fan of David Oyelowo. This adventure drama marks his feature film debut from a script by Emma Needell.
The story centers on Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) an artistic boy with keen imagination who’s working on a graphic novel Detective Knox. He just moved to a rural Oregon town with his Marine dad and loving mom who’s terminal ill. While his dad is often absent and his mom is being treated, he finds his escape through his active imagination that fills the pages of his art books… until one day he learns about the mythical Water Man who possesses the secret to immortality.
Thinking the Water Man is the secret to saving his mom, he sets out on a quest to find him in the remote Wild Horse forest. He enlists the help of a mysterious young girl Jo (Amiah Miller) who claims to have met this mythical figure. The film has a decidedly wholesome, old school vibe … clearly influenced by 80s family-friendly adventure like Stand By Me and E.T. (there’s even an homage to the Spielberg classic in the form of the boy’s vintage lunch box). I don’t think this one quite lives up to those movies, but there are still plenty to like here.
Now, the journey through the forest was quite engaging thanks to the relationship between Gunner and Jo which starts out testy but ends up being a cathartic experience for both of them. There are whimsical moments that keeps even the sad moments from being too morose. The fantasy elements might not be as dynamic or edgy enough for teens who are more used to a lot darker stuff these days, but I think Oyelowo is more concerned with making a grounded story that deals with real life struggles. I for one appreciate the earnestness in the way the story is told, as well as its insistence on finding hope amidst even the bleakest of circumstances.
Oyelowo himself is solid as the tough military dad who finally softens up and learn to see his son as he is, heeding the wisdom of his wife. Rosario Dawson portrays a wise and caring mom believably, and managed to still look radiant despite the character going through cancer treatments. Alfred Molina has a small but memorable role as an author whose book inspires his adventure. Despite the relative inexperience, the two kid actors still manage to hold my interest.
I think it’s admirable that the story places a smart black young boy as the savior figure for his family, in a story that feels universal and relatable to audiences of all backgrounds. It’s lovely to see a portrayal of a close-knit black family that feels realistic instead of aspirational. At the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from tackling difficult topics like child abuse, death of a loved one, as well as the spiritual aspect, even showing a family’s praying and thanking God. That alone is so rare to see these days and something I always appreciate.
Overall it’s an engaging directorial debut that balances heavy themes with a kid’s innocence and wide-eyed wonder. At a time where superhero movies dominate cinematic content, it’s refreshing to see an ordinary boy being the hero of his own story. I love that Gunner’s graphic novel is also given a nice resolution thanks to a creative use of end credits (if only Netflix doesn’t immediately cut off end credits to show a trailer of another movie I never asked for). I’d recommend this to people looking for a family-friendly adventure with a strong positive message.
Have you seen The Water Man? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!