(Credit: TIFF)

‘The Water Man’ review: David Oyelowo’s directorial debut makes a splash at the Toronto Film Festival

'The Water Man'
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David Oyelowo has firmly established his reputation as an actor with an array of awards from the BAFTA to the Golden Globe, for his work in A United Kingdom, Lincoln, A Most Violent Year, and his memorable portrayal of Dr Martin Luther King in Selma, and more; along with television and early stage performances. Now, Oyelowo tries his hand at directing for the first time, with The Water Man, premiering at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

The central characters are the Boone family, young Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis) and his parents, Amos and Mary (David Oyelowo and Rosario Dawson). Mary Boone is being treated for cancer and the family has recently relocated to the small, rural town of Pine Mills, Oregon, apparently in the hope that it will aid her recuperation. A sensitive, creative boy who invents and illustrates his own fantasy stories, Gunner is close to his ailing mother, but distance has developed between Gunner and his father and the family dynamic provides an important sub-plot. 

Gunner learns of a local myth, which tells of a mysterious being known as the Water Man, who lives in the nearby woods and has the means to magically ward off death. Guided by a local vagrant girl and self-proclaimed Water Man expert, Jo Riley (Amiah Miller), Gunner goes on a quest to find help for his dying mother. His journey is difficult and frightening, filled with obstacles, in scenes that purposely mingle genuine dangers with fantastical images from Gunner’s own mind. 

As a suspenseful but family-friendly adventure/fantasy tale, The Water Man is something of a throwback to a declining genre. Oyelowo commented on his fondness for older family adventure films, which could include “adventure, fantasy, and jeopardy whilst never patronising their young protagonists”. His co-star, Rosario Dawson, agreed: “It’s the kid adventure I grew up watching.” The director felt inspired to make a similar film for his children and for other families. He takes the category to a new level, with a complex, emotionally rich storyline, well rounded characters, and above all, a courageous, sometimes terrifying expedition by the young hero, Gunner Boone. 

The script is the first feature screenplay by novice filmmaker Emma Needell. In the press conference for the film’s premiere, Needell explained that her magical realism approach, which is such a remarkable feature of The Water Man, came from her childhood on a ranch in Montana. She also expressed her opinion that fantasy and a child’s perspective can be the best way to explore a painful subject, as it does with Gunner’s attempt to cope with his mother’s terminal illness. Needell’s script successfully bridges the gap between realistic family drama and fantasy and manages to be accessible to older children while remaining of genuine interest to adult viewers.

A film which derives so much from visual imagery owes a great deal to its production designer. In this case, the director was fortunate enough to have the services of Laurence Bennett, production designer for over 30 years, on films including two Best Picture Oscars: The Artist, and Crash. Bennett’s work was vital in creating scenes that sometimes hint at the mythical, sometimes bring it into full view, while keeping a firm grip on reality, as the film requires. The set design is chosen to at times serve to enhance the feeling of family unity and affection, at others suggest uncertainty or danger, at still others provide an appropriate setting for the magical and uncanny. The look of the film was further enhanced by the work of cinematographer Matt Lloyd who agreed to join the film crew based on the script. He was given challenging instructions from the director, who asked that certain scenes, set in rural Oregon, be given “an African feel and colours,” requested that specific outdoor scenes appear “transcendent,” and insisted on unreal, fantasy scenes be done believably without resorting to CGI. It was all accomplished effectively. The film would not be the same without the work of these two technical artists.

The Water Man benefits from Oyelowo’s last-minute decision to take the role of Amos Boone himself; he gives the character the necessary balance of reserve and warmth. The rest of the cast is excellent, including Rosario Dawson as Mary Boone, the emotional heart of the family. Nine-year-old Gunner Boone is the central character, and young television actor Lonnie Chavis makes him appealing and sympathetic. “Everyone can relate to Gunner,” the young actor commented at the premiere, because he is taking whatever action he can to save his mother. The minor characters are also charismatic and well rounded, including Amiah Miller as the unhappy Jo, Gunner’s guide turned ally and confidante; veteran character actor Alfred Molina as a local funeral director the boy confides in; and award-winning actress Maria Bello as the town’s sheriff. 

As a dramatic story of family tragedy and reconciliation, and an inventive tale of a fantastical adventure, peril, and rescue, all beautifully presented, The Water Man has something for every audience. 

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