Most actors who make their directorial debuts go for the seriousness of high-profile dramas or intimate indies: Bradley Cooper’s A star is born, Regina King’s One night in Miami, De Zach Braff Garden condition, Kevin Costner Dance with the wolves, And so on. Fans might expect British-born actor David Oyelowo to take the same route, given his history of portraying important roles like Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay. Selma. Instead, he took a whole different path: his first directorial outing, Water man, is a Spielbergian adventure.
In Water man, Oyelowo plays Navy veteran Amos Boone, a father who recently moved his family to the idyllic little town of Pine Mills in Oregon. The quiet setting is a perfect retreat for Amos’ terminally ill wife, Mary (Rosario Dawson). But the story doesn’t center on Amos or Mary: it centers on their preteen son Gunner (Lonnie Chavis). The whimsical young boy doesn’t know his mother is dying of leukemia, he just realizes that she is sick. So when his health suddenly deteriorates, he turns to a local legend about an immortal man with healing powers. Defying his father, Gunner teams up with Jo (Amiah Miller), a troubled blue-haired girl, in search of what he hopes is a cure. It’s a promising coming-of-age story, combining mythical folklore with real-world heartbreak for a light-hearted yet fun adventure.
In short, the way the fascinating premises filter through the characters is compelling. Gunner and Amos face Mary’s illness in opposite ways – Gunner retreats further into the books, devouring mysteries like Sherlock Holmes novels by the stack. He also sketches a graphic novel featuring a detective investigating his own death. Meanwhile, because Amos feels helpless, he often succumbs to loud explosions, criticizing his son’s loud crying and his tendency to read books at the table. The sportsman Amos and the scholastic Gunner are just two different people. Exploring this frayed father-son dynamic in the face of tragedy might have been a better choice for Oyelowo and screenwriter Emma Needell, rather than looking to the unreal outside world. As their story moves away from home, Mary becomes an unhappy afterthought.
That said, the first-time director balances the disparate tones of deadly fear and distant getaway well. Gunner regularly cruises Pine Mill on his motorized scooter, finding a funeral for his graphic novel research. During one of these expeditions, he came across an abandoned mill covered in graffiti housing the sardonic Jo. She instructs the children of the town to hear about her death, claiming that the legendary Water Man scarred her neck with a scar requiring 15 stitches. The truth about his own turbulent family life is of course sadder than his fiction. The film combines their mutual grief for their lost parents, and the mixture of Jo’s jaded personality and Gunner’s bubbling demeanor gives their unlikely friendship a dismal subtext.
More Water man hardly offer exceptional moments of wonder that mark the most memorable magical realistic stories. Although the children venture into the mystical woods armed with nothing but cans and a samurai sword, they encounter very few obstacles. Instead, they face strange events: snow falls on a summer day, an avalanche of insects rains on them, and a stampede of horses rushes in. There is a reason for these phenomena that they do not know, but they come to believe that the forest has some real magical qualities. For Oyelowo, balancing the reality of the situation with the childish suspension of disbelief proves difficult, as these coincidences are too grounded to engage adult viewers in the same dread the characters experience.
Although Gunner likes to draw, the lines Water man cannot connect. His passion for writing graphic novels led Oyelowo to add hand-drawn animation to the film, which had an invigorating effect. But the visual aid doesn’t stop Gunner from being a ubiquitous pre-teen film character – obligatory, wide-eyed giggles. If the Detective Knox character of his art became a developed entity in his mind, then the film could stretch its legs in a narrative fashion for a deeper psychological bonus. Instead, the graphic novel is relegated to trivial character detail. Likewise, the situation at Jo’s rowdy house leaves the public hoping for a bigger dig: How did no one in the small town notice that she lived in a mill? What child needs 15 stitches in the neck, only so that the story does not follow her? Too often, Jo’s physical trauma is made tangential to Gunner’s spiritual journey, as if the two themes don’t require separate and specific care.
Alfred Molina also appears in the film, as a local firefighter who once searched for the water man in hopes of speaking one last time with his deceased father. At best, Molina serves as a minor intrigue used to provide Gunner with information regarding the fable. But with a little more effort on the part of the filmmakers, he would have added an older, richer perspective to the story defined by death. There is a feeling here that Oyelowo and Needell want the fantastic enjoyment of a Spielberg classic without laying the emotional foundation necessary for children’s issues to be fully felt. Without this dimension, the authentic message that drives the action – death cannot be avoided, so cherish the time you spend with your loved ones – does not have the massive impact that the intriguing premise promises.
If not for the uptempo rhythm, Water manThe smoothness of the layout would make it a complicated job. Without Oyelowo’s beautifully mounted camera capturing the forest in supernatural blues and reds, the audience’s attention might be directed to their phones. Fortunately, well-executed components take care of the fairy tale when the tale itself is missing. And so do the endearing performances the new director pulls from young Chavis and Miller. In the energetically adventurous Water man, Oyelowo takes the path less taken by actors-turned-directors to fashion a very flawed but promising lesson in dealing with mortality – a moral that will strike very close to home for an unfortunate number of families.
Water man opens in theaters on May 7.