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Movie Reviews

The Water Man ★★★★



Director: David Oyelowo

Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello

Released: Toronto International Film Festival

The Water Man is the charmingly impressive feature directorial debut of the multi-talented actor David Oyelowo of Selma, A United Kingdom and the tv show Spooks fame. To add to the film’s credentials, The Water Man is also executively produced by Oprah Winfrey and had its World Premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.  A family film with bittersweet undertones, The Water Man successfully interweaves a childlike fantasy with real-life trauma without losing its appeal. The film’s sense of adventure is reminiscent of the enjoyable escapades from 1980s films such as The Goonies and stands out from other coming of age tales within the genre.

Surprisingly, Oyelowo is not cast as the lead as the film is portrayed from his on-screen son, Gunner with a captivating performance from Lonnie Chavis.  At the heart of The Water Man is a depiction of parent-child relationships. Gunner is on a mission to locate the mythical, reportedly immortal, figure known as The Water Man.  In the way that children believe in absolutes, Gunner believes that The Water Man’s healing powers may cure his ill mother played by Rosario Dawson.  Despite, The Water Man’s focus being on the care-free experiences of a child the reluctance to dilute the severity of Gunner’s mother’s illness, as Dawson mainly wears a headscarf, may be witnessed out of focus becoming unwell, is appreciated. This ability to tackle sombre subject matters ensures that The Water Man maintains an adult audience’s interest too, without being overly saccharine, which is quite often a tricky balancing act to achieve. As a result, Oyelowo’s direction is exceptionally skilful in such accomplishments.

The film remains grounded as the harsh realities of life continue to permeate the adventure within such scenes. Gunner’s quest leads him deeper into darker and dangerous territory within the Wild Horse Forest. The cinematography adapts efficiently to the gravity of the perceived danger, which is impressive without the reliance on visual effects. The practical effects similar to the 80s films, which were the staples of many childhood films, feels comforting but are equally visually stunning with wide-angle shots across a forest floor.  Impressively, the focus remains on the relationships within Gunner’s life as, despite a new friendship being forged, it is those orienteering skills learnt from his father which come to the fore in times of need. 

The Water Man refreshingly presents that examination of the different approaches in raising children and the knowledge that may be absorbed in various circumstances. Gunner’s mother encourages his drawing talents and empathetic, whereas Oyelowo as his father appears to be an advocate of the tough love approach. The impact of such parental interaction is subtly unveiled during the trials and tribulations encountered in the forest adventures. Under Oyelowo’s direction, the taut editing ensures that the pacing remains even without sacrificing any film’s charm or overall feel-good rhythm.

With scenes that resemble a traditional ‘lost in the woods’ adventure story, The Water Man does not fail to impress its simple visualisation of the outdoors and its vast dangers, highlighting Gunner’s naivety. Still, it is thrilling to watch a nimble Oyelowo sprinting through various forest fields trying to be the hero to save the day. The naturalistic settings also provide a respite from the CGI infused family tales of the present and combine well with the film’s themes of family and values and the respect for the natural environment.

The Water Man conveys a level of emotional complexity within a family story that is not often explored in recent times, so it is a delight to watch. Chavis embraces the role of Gunner with aplomb and has a graceful onscreen presence. The film’s remote settings and engaging storytelling imbue a sense of magic within the film. This magic, combined with the emphasis on family relationships and the message to be at peace with ourselves provides that uplifting message and soothing resolution to all. The Water Man is that perfect slice of escapism with healing powers.

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