David Oyelowo directs and co-stars as the father of a likable boy trusting a mythical figure to save his mother.
“Goonies.” “Stand by Me.” “Explorers.” Even “E.T.”
The big-hearted, supernatural-tinged, beautifully rendered “The Water Man” is set in present day but has the look and spirit of many a beloved 1980s adventure film, and that’s a pretty good deal right there. With the brilliant actor David Oyelowo (“Selma,” “Queen of Katwe”) stepping behind the camera for a most promising directorial debut — and turning in a resonant supporting performance as well — and a wonderful blend of relative newcomers and familiar veterans delivering warm and solid work, “The Water Man” is a family film in the best sense of the term. The material will grab, scare and delight kids past a certain age, while the adults will undoubtedly appreciate the positive messaging and the timely undercurrent and the Kleenex-worthy emotional moments.
This is a movie about a monster in the woods that’s really about much scarier things for children: a mother in one family who is seriously ill; a father in another family who is physically abusive; a wildfire raging in the mountains.
All terrific adventure stories like this need a winning protagonist — and Lonnie Chavis (“This is Us”) is eminently likable as 11-year-old Gunner Boone, a bright and sensitive kid in the sun-dappled, golden, cinematically ready Pacific Northwest town of Pine Mills, Oregon, who gobbles up books like Reese’s Pieces and is fast at work on his first graphic novel, about a ghost detective investigating his own murder. It’s easy to see why Gunner is consumed with fantasy and escapism, given his beloved mother Mary (Rosario Dawson, wonderful) is battling leukemia and Gunner is often at odds with his rigid, disciplinarian father Amos (Oyelowo), a military man who recently has returned home from an extended tour in Japan and is having great difficulty connecting with Gunner.
After a frightening moment when Gunner realizes the full extent of his mother’s condition, he grabs his father’s Samurai sword from the mantle, stashes his savings in his pockets and runs away from home in search of the Water Man.
Wait, the what now? Well. As the local myth goes, there once was a miner named Edward Schaal who discovered a glowing stone with magical healing powers just before a flood roared through town, killing nearly everyone, including Edward’s beloved wife. Thanks to the magic stone, Edward survived the flood — and he has spent the last many decades roaming the woods in search of his wife’s remains so he can bring her back to life. Gunner is just at the age where he can talk himself into believing the Water Man is real, and can help him save his mother.
Amiah Miller is terrific as Jo, a slightly older girl who claims to have encountered the Water Man — she points to the fresh scar on her neck as proof — and sees Gunner as an easy mark who will dole out every bit of cash to him as she takes him deep into the woods to the locale where she crossed paths with the Water Man. As Gunner and Jo stray farther from home and run into increasingly dangerous obstacles (and of course become true friends), Amos sets out to rescue his son, with the help of a sympathetic local police officer (Maria Bello). Yes, there is a moment when Gunner appears to have found the Water Man (and we’ll say no more), but the real menace is the wildfire roaring through the mountains and surrounding Gunner and Jo.
From the get-go, we have a pretty good sense of where “The Water Man” will take us, and while there are a few small surprises along the way, the real delight is the journey itself and how the real bond of a family is stronger than any monsters lurking in the dark.