Review by Sean Boelman
Even if a film doesn’t break new narrative ground, it can still be magical if it traverses its familiar beats in a way that is both enjoyable and meaningful. David Oyelowo’s feature debut The Water Man succeeds in doing so, capturing the charm of the adventure movies that defined many a childhood and telling a touching story in the process.
The movie follows a young boy who, distraught with the suffering of his terminally ill mother, sets out on a quest to find a mythical figure who may be able to heal her. Admittedly, Emma Needell’s script is a tad on the conventional and predictable side, but there is something undeniably delightful about it.
One of the things that makes this film stand out from other recent family adventures is that it isn’t too caught up in delivering big and exciting action sequences. Rather, the emphasis is on the emotional elements that are more endearing. This will appeal to the nostalgia of adult viewers but also catch the imagination of younger audiences.
Thematically, the movie covers some pretty hefty stuff for a modern film. There are a lot of movies aimed at kids about a young protagonist who must grieve the loss of their parent, but few explore how it feels to have that parent slipping away. And in this way, Needell offers a unique approach to familiar ideas.
Young actor Lonnie Chavis is a star in the making, giving a performance that is complex and packed with emotion. He holds his own against the supporting cast filled with acclaimed actors such as Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Maria Bello, and Alfred Molina. His excellent father-son chemistry with Oyelowo is particularly notable.
Oyelowo brings a very colorful and beautiful visual style to his feature debut. It’s an energetic movie with rapid pacing and the dynamism to back it up. Through his world-building and cinematography, Oyelowo draws us into the protagonist’s fantasy world that shares a lot in common with real life but is filled with hope and wonder.
If the film does fall flat in one area, it is that it doesn’t really explore the friendship that forms between the protagonist and his wayward companion. Unfortunately, the female characters here serve mostly as devices to serve the male protagonist’s growth, although a brief subplot does offer some much needed development in this area.
The Water Man is arguably one of the more exciting prospects to come out of this fall’s festival circuit. A fun, old-school adventure with plenty of heart, this is the crowd-pleasing and hopeful movie that audiences need in this time of darkness.
The Water Man screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.