‘Water Man’ review: Family drama is mythical, but not memorable

the water man

Running time: 92 minutes. Rated PG (mature themes). In theaters.

Actor David Oyelowo’s debut as a director, “The Water Man,” is a very nice movie that’s a lot like a bunch of other very nice movies. 

Gunner’s mom (Rosario Dawson) is dying of cancer, and the awkward young bookworm is determined to save her. So he borrows everything written on leukemia from the library and asks her doctor to prescribe different meds. 

Nothing works, but then Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) hears the legend of the Water Man, a local myth about a guy who miraculously woke up after drowning only to become immortal. He is said to live in the forest on the edge of town, constantly searching the river for his dead wife.

Gunner hatches a scheme to find the Water Man and learn the secret to everlasting life, so his mother can be cured. He runs away, and his worried pop (Oyelowo), who he has an up-and-down relationship with, feverishly searches for him.

Watching the pleasant-enough film, I thought of Natalie Babbitt’s novel “Tuck Everlasting,” about a woodland family that doesn’t age. Patrick Ness’ book “A Monster Calls,” which is the story of a boy who is visited in the night by a beast while his mother is dying of cancer, also popped in.

Neither of those are the Mona Lisa of young-adult fiction, but both cast a spell with an otherworldly atmosphere and deep emotional investment. “Water Man” is similar, yet watered down.

Another recognizable trope is the teen girl who helps Gunner attempt to find the creature. Her name is Jo (Amiah Miller), and she has blue-green hair and a “cross me and I’ll punch you” personality. Characters like Jo are the new manic-pixie dream girl — let’s call them the maddened, bitchy goth girl. They still exist as sherpas for lost men, but they’re not so flirty anymore.

The best part of “Water Man” is Gunner’s frayed relationship with his father, sensitively played by Oyelowo. He wants his kid to play baseball, not read and draw cartoons. He thinks Lonnie’s flights of fancy are stressing out mom, and therefore exacerbating her illness. But when Gunner runs away to the woods, he finds a new appreciation for his kid.

Off-screen, Oyelowo moves the camera elegantly, and he creates a few cool moments in the woods. There is a surprise stampede of horses and a waterfall of beetles. However, unlike its title character, “The Water Man” won’t endure forever.

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