‘The Water Man’ Review: David Oyelowo’s Directorial Debut Speaks to Kids – Variety

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An attractive for-kids ghost story whose fantasy components are thoughtfully grounded by real-world issues, “The Water Man” ends with a blazing wildfire that’s far scarier than the supernatural components that precede it — particularly now, as a lot of the Pacific Northwest burns. Followers of David Oyelowo’s performing work is perhaps stunned he selected such a “Goosebumps”-y venture as his directorial debut, though it’s fairly cool for youthful audiences that the “Selma” star put his clout (with a lift from exec producer Oprah Winfrey) behind a household movie.

So what if the film’s creepy title character isn’t any match for the nightmare of being surrounded by flames? It’s truly fairly good on the film’s half to acknowledge that such disasters — which can solely turn out to be extra widespread as local weather change will get extra unstable — have a method of placing every little thing else into perspective. To some extent, all horror motion pictures are about our concern of demise, besides on this case, the movie’s 11-year-old protagonist, Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis), isn’t fearful about his personal life, however his mom’s.

Mary (Rosario Dawson, saintly) has been recognized with leukemia, and her husband, Amos (Oyelowo, enjoying a extra imperfect character), most likely didn’t assist issues by transferring the household to Pine Mills, Ore. — a minimum of not till Gunner begins to listen to tales of the Water Man, a neighborhood bogeyman with mysterious therapeutic powers. Whereas the opposite youngsters Gunner’s age appear to be genuinely fearful of assembly this infamous spirit, rumors that the Water Man is perhaps reanimating lifeless critters within the forest offers Gunner an thought: If he could be brave sufficient to search out the ghoul, absolutely he’ll agree to increase Mary’s life.

That’s most likely not the perfect plan, however Gunner is determined. He collects all his money, grabs Dad’s samurai sword from above the mantel — not a nasty weapon for defending oneself in opposition to ghouls — and asks a barely older and more-than-slightly intimidating lady to indicate him the way in which. Jo (Amiah Miller) claims she has seen the Water Man, and even has the scar to show it, though one can’t assist questioning how Gunner hopes to purpose with the zombie-like entity believed to be haunting Wild Horse woods.

It also needs to be stated that Gunner is an avid reader and actually must know higher. As an alternative, he follows the clues to the native funeral house, the place an eccentric undertaker performed by Alfred Molina offers him a map and a few important backstory. Legend has it that the Water Man was as soon as a miner named Edward Schaal (Ted Rooney), and that he found a magic stone simply earlier than a flood swept by means of city, killing practically everybody however him. (Therefore the water.) He’s been in search of his lifeless spouse ever since, hoping to carry her again.

If this had been a conventional ghost story, Gunner must help Schaal in placing no matter tragedy tortures him to relaxation, however screenwriter Emma Needell is correct to acknowledge that Gunner’s personal nervousness issues extra. Contemplating all of the near-death brushes his journey with Jo entails, it’s extra significant to concentrate on the boy coming to phrases with mortality — no small ambition for a mainstream household movie.

That is truly one in all two youth fantasy motion pictures Oyelowo has made this 12 months, and the opposite — the Brenda Chapman-directed what-if-Peter-Pan-and-Alice-in-Wonderland-were-siblings film “Come Away,” by which he additionally performs the daddy — equally tried to current concepts of grief and loss to youngsters. “The Water Man” does a greater job of it, utilizing Mary’s sickness not as an excuse to emotionally manipulate audiences, however as the place to begin for post-screening conversations between mother and father and their youngsters about what demise means, and why it doesn’t must be scary. Like “Bridge to Terabithia,” the film may very well be much more invaluable as a coping device than as leisure.

Oyelowo clearly has a excessive opinion of his younger viewers’s intelligence, relying on them to be a number of steps of Gunner alongside the way in which — as in a magical scene when the boy errors ash raining down from the hearth for “snow in July.” However he additionally does a reasonably efficient job of deceptive them, utilizing viewers’ lively engagement to construct the Water Man into one thing bigger of their creativeness than he plans to ship. That doesn’t imply we by no means meet the title determine. When he does seem, the Water Man’s as intimidating because the skeletal scalliwags within the “Pirates of the Caribbean” footage.

That’s nearly all Oyelowo’s modestly budgeted debut has in widespread with latest Disney motion pictures, nonetheless. Aesthetically, it feels extra like your standard-issue straight-to-streaming fare: skilled sufficient, however not fairly big-screen worthy. Even Netflix audiences most likely anticipate a bit extra, spoiled as they’ve been by “Stranger Issues” and its many Amblin-esque imitators.

“The Water Man” lacks these initiatives’ sense of environment. It’s over-lit, extra like a sitcom than a thriller, and other than the 2 youngsters — who’re each terrific, with vivid futures forward — the performances are surprisingly one-dimensional (like Maria Bello as a involved native cop) contemplating that the director hails from an performing background. However Oyelowo has youngsters of his personal and doesn’t appear particularly fearful what adults may suppose. Below the guise of feeding youngsters’s nightmares, he’s giving them one thing to dream about.

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