The Water Man (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Searching for the Water Man

“The Water Man”, which was released in US a few months ago and then released on Netflix outside US, is a modest but wholesome coming-of-age fantasy drama. While it is reminiscent of other similar genre products ranging from “Bridge to Terabithia” (2007) to “A Monster Calls” (2016), the movie mostly works as earnestly building up its story and characters with enough mood and emotion, and we come to accept a number of fantasy elements in the film while also appreciating the small but precious beating heart at the center of the story.

In the beginning, the movie gradually establishes the new environment surrounding a young boy named Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis). Due to his seriously ill mother Mary (Rosario Dawson), his navy father Amos (David Oyelowo) decided to move to a small mountain town located somewhere in Oregon, but the fact that Mary may die sooner later has already hovered around them, no matter how much Amos and Mary try to keep going for their young son. Amos also tries to get closer to his son for more emotional support, but he is not so good well in interacting with his son, and that makes Gunner feel more alone in front of his growing fear and sadness from his mother’s illness.

At least, Gunner is brightened up a lot whenever he freely wields his artistic imagination in his own small world. During the opening scene, we see him trying to develop his own graphic novel, and he often borrows lots of various books from the kind owner of a local bookstore for getting more idea and inspiration. His mother certainly appreciates her son’s burgeoning artistic talent and sensitivity a lot, and her time with Gunner always brings a little but nice joy to her even though her illness continues to get worse day by day.

Of course, Gunner soon comes to realize that his mother may not live that long, and we see his innocent but sincere attempt to find any possible solution to his impending family matter. After putting aside his graphic novel project for now, he begins to study a bunch of medical textbooks associated with his mother’s illness, and then he happens to come upon an old book which contains the myth about a local supernatural entity called, yes, “the Water Man”. According to the book, the Water Man may have a cure for Gunner’s mother as an immortal entity who can bring back life to dying organisms, and, out of growing desperation, Gunner becomes determined to find the Water Man by any means necessary.

Fortunately for Gunnar, there are two people who may help him to some degree. One of them is a local recluse who actually wrote that book in question, and that person willingly gives Gunnar some helpful bits of information about the Water Man and a wide nearby forest, where the Water Man have supposedly lived for more than a century as desperately searching for the body of a person who was quite dear to the Water Man.

The other person is Jo Riley (Amiah Miller), a feisty runaway teenage girl who has earned a bit from local kids as telling the stories about the Water Man. According to one of her stories, she actually met the Water Man in the forest on one day, and she surely interests her audiences including Gunnar as emphasizing that her visible scar was resulted from that spooky encounter of hers.

After a rather traumatic moment which painfully reminds him again of how seriously ill his mother really is, Gunnar comes to believe that he must take any action right now, so he subsequently approaches to Jo, and she agrees to accompany him during their impromptu journey into that forest where the Water Man is supposed to be hiding somewhere. As they go deeper into the forest, the movie occasionally looks around here and there for more realistic mood and details, and that accordingly immerses us more into our two main characters’ ongoing situation, which turns out to be more perilous than expected due to a big wildfire approaching to the forest hour by hour.

What is revealed along their adventurous journey is not so surprising to say the least, but the screenplay by Emma Needell steadily stays focused on character development, and the movie provides us several nice fantasy moments seamlessly incorporated into its vivid and realistic forest background. I like the magical ambience of a brief scene where Gunnar and Jo come across a very unlikely happening in the middle of the forest, and I must confess that I was quite amused by a nocturnal scene which will surely make you cringe if you have an aversion to bugs. Around the narrative point where Gunnar finally reaches to what may be the arrival point of his journey, we come to look back on all these and other things in his journey, and there is a real poignancy in what he eventually comes to learn and accept.

Director/co-producer David Oyelowo, who has been mainly known for his commendable performances in several acclaimed films including Ava Duvernay’s “Selma” (2014), draws good performances from his small main cast members. While Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller diligently hold the center as required, Oyelowo and the other adult cast members including Alfred Molina, Maria Bello, and Rosario Dawson dutifully fill their respective spots around Chavis and Miller, and Dawson brings considerable warmth and presence to her seemingly thankless supporting role.

Overall, “The Water Man” is sensitive and thoughtful in terms of story and characters in addition to having enough sense of fantasy, and Oyelowo makes a fairly solid feature film directorial debut just like Chiwetel Ejiofor recently did in Netflix film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” (2019). While you can easily discern what you are going to get from it, the movie did a better job than expected, and that is more than enough for recommendation.

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