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  • Nate Adams

Review: Children fantasy 'The Water Man' stuck in a drought

Courtesy of RLJE Films


Not to be confused with “The Empty Man” or “The Bye Bye Man,” actor David Oyelowo’s directorial debut “The Water Man” is very much a family affair with its heart and sincerity on display for its target audience. A sweeping fantasy epic that in a different era would be released by Walden Media, Oyelowo shows great poise behind the camera, but his “The Water Man” lacks the type of wonder and enchantment necessary to become an instant, gratifying hit. The entire cast, anchored by talented rising star Lonnie Chavis and the always reliable Rosario Dawson, keep this iffy drama afloat when the folklore becomes muffled in its execution.

At its core, “The Water Man”is a redemptive story of healing and nurturing and that should be celebrated though it's hardly original. Chavis plays Gunner, who finds himself on a mythic quest to track down the elusive “Water Man” after his family relocated and his mother (Dawson) becomes terminally ill. Gunner’s very active imagination takes shape after a crotchety old man - played by Alfred Molina - unspools the Water Man’s legacy and his reigning immortality. Gunner, along with local girl Jo (Amiah Miller), traverse the remote Wild Horse forest amid their rural backwoods town trying to find the figure who could potentially cure his mother.

The journey isn’t an easy one, but the stakes nor the jeopardy ever become fully realized. Near the end of the picture, a giant forest fire ravages local communities and the forest in which Gunner and Jo are probing for answers, but it never feels like the children are in danger, especially as Gunner’s father is hot on their tails. There’s humongous waterfalls with log bridges that can be toppled if the wind changes directions and the mystery surrounding Water Man might play better on the page as opposed to a feature. Oyelowo pulls double duties and he cultivates a winning environment for this crew of young performers, but there’s no distinct creative or visual flair that hooks the viewer. No standout scene where it can separate itself from the likes of “Bridge of Terabithia.” Even tossing Molina another unrewarding sequence where he shows up to briefly explain The Water Man a second time confirms audiences might have snoozed during the first monologue. A subplot about Jo’s abusive household never earns its keep either, given a consolation tag during the closing moments as opposed to a fully-fleshed backstory.

Ultimately, “The Water Man” is competently directed with a likeable cast and gorgeous cinematography, except its inherent lack of wonder left me feeling sour. It would have been stronger had the screenplay focused more predominantly on Gunner’s wobbly relationship with his father, but it instead becomes a tireless exercise in routine young-adult fantasy. Kids might appreciate Gunner and Jo’s freewheeling determination - children seem to love watching other children bend the rules and forge their own path - and I’ll be eager to see Oyelowo’s next directorial effort, but “The Water Man” feels stuck in its own universe, begging for more exploration.

Grade: C+

THE WATER MAN opens in theaters Friday, May 7th


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