3 out of 5 stars
When you begin the adventure of The Water Man, you should automatically wonder how you missed this coming-of-age book when you were growing up. Emma Needell’s screenplay has the feel of a classic pre-teen novel, but it surprisingly is not. It is based on her award-winning (Black List) script about the life of Gunner Boone (This is Us -Lonnie Chavis). Now that is a cool protagonist’s name. In her tale, audiences are taken into the lush forests and quirky communities of America’s Northwest that has a legend of a mythical figure called The Water Man. With David Oyelowo (Selma) filling the role of the boy’s father and sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, this looks to be a film for the whole family.
Amos (Oyelowo) and Mary (Rosario Dawson) have moved to a small-town in Oregon to get cancer treatment. Their son tries to cope with his mother’s illness by working on his graphic novel and taking trips to the local bookstore on his scooter. As they adjust to the new community and all that is going on within the family, Gunner discovers the myth of a man who lives in the forest who possesses healing abilities. Edward Schaal (Ted Rooney) had lived decades earlier and, as a miner, had happened upon a source of power that gave him immortality. This mystical man supposedly still roams the forest and the waterways looking for his wife. She had tragically perished years before when a dam broke in their local area.
Since things had been difficult at home, the young artist decides to find out more about this legendary man and to discover where he resides in the woods. When he comes upon a teenage girl who tells stories of how she came in contact with the Water Man, Gunner seeks her guidance. Along with direction from a local historian named Jim Bussey (Alfred Molina), he begins his adventure. Joined by Jo Riley (Amiah Miller), who says she can guide him to the mysterious man’s cabin, they head off into the forest, unaware that a bushfire is raging close by and that they are heading straight into danger.
This project has all of the earmarks of a Disney excursion into self-discovery. Interestingly, The Water Man was initially meant to be distributed by the Mouse House. Even though they did not back the film in the end, it was supported by Oprah Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Films, and gained the traction it needed. As with many of these films over the past year, it was snapped up by Netflix to give the streaming service some quality family entertainment.
With the high standards of writing and the stellar cast members, everything looks right for an endearing drama. It does live up to the expectation for the most part. Lonnie Chavis carries the weight of the film on his shoulders, which he does with a convincing performance. While Oyelowo puts forward an admirable effort as both director and actor, even though some aspects with the production did not deliver. These weaker elements can be found in the poor character development and some significant plot holes, like why the family was even in this small town in Oregon in the first place. Thankfully these minor flaws were not enough to derail things, but it did mean that the pacing was a bit slow and some key characters were left two-dimensional in the end. Yet, it is a good option for families looking for an imaginative coming-of-age adventure to enjoy together and leads to some compelling discussions of life, death and creativity.
REEL DIALOGUE: Do you wonder what comes after death?
Death is never an easy subject to address in family films. Still, The Water Man opens the flood gates to this discussion with finesse and care. Gunner and his mother address the issues of heaven, hell, immortality and hope. Even though the screenplay provides weak answers, it does allow for this to be looked at from a young person’s perspective.
One resource that parents can turn to in this discussion is The Bible. It does manage to provide most of the answers that all of us are searching for in the film and in life. This is where the promise of eternal life from the God of the Bible truly brings this subject matter to the forefront of the conversation. For anyone who wants to dig in deeper, it is all there to be considered in Revelation 21-22.
Realistically, as death impacts us all, it is not too surprising that belief in an afterlife exists. The difference found in Christianity is that access comes from a place of sacrifice and selflessness. To find out more, check out these links to see the real answers to life, death and more.