In David Oyelowo’s directorial debut The Water Man, precocious and imaginative Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis) asks his ill mother Mary (Rosario Dawson), “Where do we go when we die?” Mary responds warmly, describing “a special place” where souls dwell, one we “won’t understand until we get there.” This dynamic between the loving sickly mother and her dedicated son is the heart of The Water Man, a film about magic, hope and dying. Gunner’s got to use his can-do attitude to find the Water Man, whom local legend claims has the secret to immortality. While Gunner’s quest to find the Water Man is intriguing, and Chavis and Dawson’s performances elevate the film, The Water Man remains a middling movie that’s character work leaves much to be desired.
The Boones are a Black family that has recently arrived in Pine Mills, a predominantly white and ostensibly Southern town. Mary wears cool ankara clothes and makes time to sing and play with Gunner. She’s emotionally invested in him and the graphic novel he’s working on about a ghost detective who investigates his own murder. The Water Man is peppered with these tender exchanges between Dawson and Chavis, who—through Oyelowo’s direction—compellingly deliver a series of believable belly laughs and moments of mutual adoration. In stark contrast to Mary, Gunner’s father Amos (Oyelowo) is a more rigid, less emotional Navy man. He loves Gunner, but struggles to connect with him after his return from service in Japan. When Gunner finds out that his mother has leukemia, he invokes the help of Jo (Amiah Miller), a blue-haired, plaid-wearing girl who claims to know how to find the Water Man for the right price. She dresses this way so we know that she doesn’t fit in. Together the duo disappear into the thick brush of the Wild Horse forest to find the Water Man.
After hearing that our Black boy protagonist’s name was Gunner and watching his Black family eat dinner beneath a chandelier bedecked with antlers, I suspected that I was in for quite the ride. That suspicion was correct. There are choices throughout The Water Man that left me questioning if screenwriter Emma Needell intrinsically created the story to include Black characters. For example, Gunner spends a majority of the film with his father’s katana hung across his back. Was this fictional choice made to make room for a young Black boy who openly carries a weapon in front of Southern townies and lives to tell the tale? When Gunner understands the gravity of his mother’s illness, he disappears into the forest—seeking a white 19th-century widower who has been rumored to roam the forest looking for the bones of his dead wife—for days without a trace or robust explanation to any-goddamn-body? After developing these questions, I realized that I was approaching The Water Man all wrong. Gunner’s motivations don’t need to be heavily scrutinized for socio-political accuracy. In The Water Man, Alfred Molina plays a funeral home owner who believes in immortality and a Black kid gets to learn a lesson about the power of hope and belief.
What the The Water Man lacks in plot precision, it makes up for with the wonder of fantasy. It is a film that’s central adventure and stylization outweigh its plot holes. Due to Gunner’s fascination with graphic novels, various animated sequences aesthetically reinforce his characterization. When funeral home coordinator Jim (Alfred Molina) tells Gunner (and, second-handedly, the audience) the story of the Water Man, entrancing black-and-white figures swim across the screen. 19th-century mining men are depicted in the style of Gunner’s comics. We are seeing what he’s seeing as Molina’s character talks with him—the gangly torso of the bereaved Water Man, the golden rock which has kept him alive all these many years. Aside from the mother-son scenes, these animated sequences translate Needell’s writing most effectively. Additionally, when Jo and Gunner are camping in the woods there is a scarring sequence in which a deluge of beetles—radiating scarab from The Mummy vibes—crawl all over the children. Shoutout to the sound designers, because I was disgusted and had to take a 10-minute pause on the film. These fantasy elements—of snowfall in the summer; of bugs who fashion kiddie conveyor belts out of their bodies and yeet children across the forest floor—make for some of the most visually engaging moments in the film outside of its explicit animation.
The Water Man’s weaker aspects, however, come from the fact that its very premise distances the characters with the greatest emotional bond for the majority of the film. Jo and Gunner spend a majority of their quest getting to know each other. The best-bud banter that fortifies children’s quests in The Goonies or Stranger Things isn’t at work here. Additionally, Amos spends most of the film attempting to redeem himself as a father and husband after a spat that occurs the night before Gunner leaves to find the Water Man. For a film about intimacy and extending the time we have with loved ones, there is an abundance of emotional strain present in our protagonist’s salient relationships. Jo is seldom on screen without Gunner, though she has her own storied background and isn’t merely there to help Gunner along (hats off to Needell). That said, her stand-offish nature and combative behavior may be appropriate character-wise, but it also prolongs tension and delays the true start of an already flimsy, transactional friendship. These decisions, coupled with the fact that Gunner is still acclimating to this town, steeps The Water Man in a confusing emotional frigidity. When the direction and tone should be doubling down on warmth, it finds ways to accentuate Gunner’s hyper-independence and detachment from those around him.
Despite it all, The Water Man’s adventurous premise ultimately redeems it from its tonal confusion and scrappy character work. It’s narratively propelled by the intriguing belief that belief itself is one of the most life-sustaining forces there is. While the film does not possess the precision needed to be a classic adventure-fantasy films, The Water Man is a testament to my die-hard belief that Black people should be allowed to make movies that are just fine, and even have them be enthusiastically enjoyed despite their flaws.
Director: David Oyelowo
Writer: Emma Needell
Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello
Release Date: May 7, 2021
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.