Premiering at the 45th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, The Water Man came in as a film that surprisingly lacked much audience awareness compared to other entries of its caliber. The directorial debut of Selma star David Oyelowo, The Water Man had star power both in front of and behind the camera. Executive Produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Rosario Dawson, David Oyelowo, and Lonnie Chavis, the film tells the story of a young boy who sets out on a quest to find a mythical figure in order to save his dying mother and fix his familial bonds.
Set from the start with the goal of evoking Spielbergian adventure films of the 1980s, with The Water Man, director David Oyelowo proudly wears his inspirations on his sleeve, attempting to capture an aura of magic and child-like wonder while still keeping the narrative in a realm of realism that holds much thematic depth, akin to classics like E.T. and The Goonies. Thankfully, it results in a promising and strong directorial debut, with Oyelowo competently handling smooth tonal shifts that could’ve been handled in a radically different way by most other first-time directors. Yet, despite his steady hand, his inexperience does shine through at certain parts. With a tempered ambition and an affinity to not stray far from tired and trodden story beats that have been explored countless times before, it can be noted that Oyelowo’s voice behind the camera is one that is just starting to become developed, but that with the right guidance and development, has the potential to achieve great things in the industry.
However, many of both the film’s strengths and weaknesses are even more apparent in Emily A. Needell’s screenplay that originated from the 2015 edition of the Black List. While ambitious for a children’s film, it’s relatively short length, unfortunately, results in many of its central characters being robbed of the chance to have been developed to greater depths, diminishing much of the potential emotional impact it was striving for. That is not to say that the film isn’t one that will be cherished by many, similar to those childhood nostalgia films that both Oyelowo and Needell seem to have been inspired by. Despite what it lacks, the character dynamics that are set up by Needell (specifically the stark differences of the bonds between Gunner (Chavis) and his mother (Dawson) and Gunner and his father (Oyelowo)), as well as the core conflict of the film, are bound to resonate with children all around the world.
One must not underestimate the extent to which the performances from the stellar cast aid in the creation of the compelling nature of the film. During the trepidatious journey to find the titular character, Chavis and Amiah Miller, who plays the cynical Jo and is partnered up with Chavis’ character for the majority of the film, are able to hold their own in an era where solid child performances are few and far between. Even the criminally underused Alfred Molina, who makes a brief appearance in a small role, delivers a compelling performance in the early stages of the film. Yet, it is Oyelowo and Dawson who give the film a much-needed heart as the emotional core of the film, as well as one of the key points of connection older audiences may have to truly be able to connect with the film. Without them both to hold the film down, it would’ve been much tougher to deem this film a cross-generational success.
Despite the fact that it ultimately comes up short of its lofty ambitions, The Water Man is a touching family film that superbly balances mature themes with an optimistic outlook, resulting in a heartfelt adventure tale that is sure to deeply resonate with all who see it.
The Water Man is out today, May 7, exclusively on Netflix.
Photo: Karen Ballard