In his directorial debut The Water Man, David Oyelowo proves to be talented visual director, delivering an astute environment verging on magical realism, but the family adventure film is eventually let down by script issues and shaky juvenile performances.
Lonnie Chavis stars as Gunner Boone, a young teenager who spends his time researching for his comic book and trying to avoid seeing the pain of seeing his mother Mary (Rosario Dawson) battle with cancer. Gunner’s Navy veteran father Amos (Oyelowo) has been tending more to his wife and doesn’t know how to connect to his son.
Gunner wanders around the outskirts of town and happens upon Jo (Amiah Miller) telling a story about how she survived her encounter with the mysterious Water Man; a magical ghost who lives in the woods. Gunner is led to the library and to the door of Jim (Alfred Molina), who tells Gunner about how the Water Man cheated death and holds the key to immortality. Flush with information and using Jo as his guide, he arms himself with his father’s sword he brought back from his naval service and sets out into the woods to find a cure for his mother’s cancer.
Amos discovers Gunner’s absconsion and contacts the authorities. Sherriff Goodwin (Maria Bello) assists in the search for Gunner, but has her own problems as the woods are in the midst of a forest fire. Amos continues to search for Gunner and tries to keep Mary unworried, lest her condition worsen.
Oyelowo’s camera provides a dynamic perspective, sweeping over and around our characters and keeping the film feeling fresh. Additional flourishes include the live animation of Gunner’s comic book pages, giving further depth into his simple stories. Unfortunately, the story and writing don’t do the director any favors. The film’s clunky narrative stretches the imagination and teeters on the precipice of magical realism while never truly believing you will ever actually get there. Not to mention, the amount of references to “The Water Man” could devolve into a drinking game.
Chavis and Miller focus much of the narrative attention and neither feels up to the challenge. Chavis shows one of two emotions: steely and quiet bravery or panicked whine, with each changing like a flip of a switch. His character never feels fully developed or even particularly likeable. Miller is portraying an “alternative” character, but she falls victim to the unfortunate trait of being molded by abuse. The two never seem to bond and have shaky chemistry.
Oyelowo has the most interesting role, trying to balance being a father and a husband, but ultimately has less substance than he could have. One scene highlights the actor’s physicality, but since the scene comes out of nowhere, it comes across as humorous. Dawson, Bello and Molina are completely wasted, each providing an archetype more than an actual character.
For his debut, Oyelowo shows real promise behind the camera and if he gets the right ingredients around him, maybe his directorial career can take off. Unfortunately, this is not the film to do it.