A very different father-and-son story unfolds in David Oyelowo’s directorial debut, a sweet, endearing fantasy movie about a young man who believes an urban legend is the path to saving his ill mother. Oyelowo has a really good eye, assisted by strong, vibrant cinematography from Matthew J. Lloyd (“Spider-Man: Far From Home”), and his movie has a big heart. Ultimately, “The Water Man” feels a little too slight—it doesn’t come together like I hoped it would after the very promising first act—but there’s enough to like to recommend watching it when it lands on a streaming service, and, most of all, to encourage Oyelowo to get behind the camera again.
The star of “Selma” plays Amos, who has a strained relationship with his creative son Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), who is increasingly unsettled by his mother’s illness. Gunner learns about the legend of the Water Man, a figure in the woods who may have healing power, and he sets out with a girl named Jo (Amiah Miller) to find him. From here, “The Water Man” alternates between Gunner & Jo’s journey and Amos’ attempts to find his missing son, helped by an officer played by Maria Bello. Rosario Dawson adds subtle humanity to the role of Gunner’s mother.
The TIFF description portrayed “The Water Man” as a descendant of ‘80s adventure family films, but it’s not quite there. Yes, the ‘80s films that so many people love blended mythology and family-friendly journeys, but Oyelowo’s not doing a “Super 8” thing here. He’s not openly cribbing from the Spielberg playbook as so many people have. He has own voice already, one that understands how to use the scope and beauty of the natural world. Without spoiling anything, I hoped the back half of “The Water Man” had a few more surprises, instead of playing out pretty much as one would expect that it would, but its heart and soul are always in the right place. If Oyelowo can find a slightly more ambitious script, he could really make waves as a director too.