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Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller, as Gunner and Jo, stand in the forest looking baffled in The Water Man. Photo: RLJE Films

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David Oyelowo’s directorial debut The Water Man is a Spielbergian fairytale adventure

Some key pieces are missing, but it’s an effective, pretty charmer

Most actors making their directorial debuts opt for the gravitas of prestige dramas or intimate indies: Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, Zach Braff’s Garden State, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, and so forth. Fans might expect British-born actor David Oyelowo to take the same route, given his history of portraying weighty roles like Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Instead, he opted for a totally different path: His first directorial outing, The Water Man, is a Spielbergian romp.

In The Water Man, Oyelowo plays Navy veteran Amos Boone, a father who recently relocated his family to the small idyllic Oregon town of Pine Mills. The quiet setting is a perfect retreat for Amos’ terminally ill wife, Mary (Rosario Dawson). But the story doesn’t center on Amos or Mary: It focuses on their preadolescent son Gunner (Lonnie Chavis). The young, fanciful boy doesn’t know his mother is dying from leukemia, he just understands that she’s sick. So when her health suddenly deteriorates, he turns to a local legend about an immortal man with healing powers. Defying his father, Gunner teams with Jo (Amiah Miller), a troubled blue-haired girl, in search of what he hopes will be a cure. It’s a promising coming-of-age story, combining mythical folklore with real-world heartache for a slight but fun adventure.

Briefly, the ways that fascinating premise filters into the characters is compelling. Gunner and Amos cope with Mary’s illness in opposing ways — Gunner retreats further into books, devouring mysteries like the Sherlock Holmes novels by the stack. He also sketches a graphic novel featuring a detective investigating his own death. Meanwhile, because Amos feels helpless, he often succumbs to loud outbursts, criticizing his son’s loud crying, and his tendency to read books at the dinner table. The sporty Amos and the scholastic Gunner are just two different people. Exploring that fraying father-son dynamic in the face of tragedy might have been a better choice for Oyelowo and screenwriter Emma Needell, rather than turning to the unreal outside world. As their story progresses away from the household, Mary becomes an unfortunate afterthought.

Alfred Molina and David Oyelowo stand by a red truck looking concerned in The Water Man. Photo: RLJE Films

That said, the first-time director does balance the disparate tones of mortal fear and far-flung escapade well. Gunner routinely cruises Pine Mill on his motorized scooter, finding funerals for his graphic-novel research. During one such expedition, he stumbles upon an abandoned graffiti-covered mill housing the sardonic Jo. She charges the town’s children to hear about her brush with death, claiming the fabled Water Man marked her neck with a scar requiring 15 stitches. The truth of her own turbulent homelife is sadder than her fiction, of course. The film combines their mutual grief for their lost parents, and the mix of Jo’s jaded personality and Gunner’s ebullient demeanor give their unlikely friendship a mournful subtext.

But The Water Man struggles to deliver exceptional moments of wonder that mark the most memorable magical realist stories. Though the kids venture to the mystical woods armed with nothing but canned goods and a samurai sword, they encounter very few obstacles. Instead, they confront odd happenings: Snow falls on a summer’s day, an avalanche of bugs rain down upon them, and a stampede of horses charge their way. There’s a reason for these phenomena that they don’t know, but they come to believe the forest holds true magical qualities. For Oyelowo, balancing the reality of the situation with the childlike suspension of disbelief proves difficult, because these coincidences are too grounded to engage adult viewers in the same awe the characters experience.

Though Gunner loves to sketch, the lines in The Water Man fail to connect. His passion for writing graphic novels leads Oyelowo to add hand-sketched animation to the movie, which has an enlivening effect. But the visual aid doesn’t stop Gunner from being a ubiquitous pre-teen movie character — a wide-eyed, compulsory giggler. If the Detective Knox character from his art became a developed entity within his mind, then the film could narratively stretch its legs for a deeper psychological bounty. Instead, the graphic novel is relegated to an insignificant character detail. Likewise, Jo’s turbulent home situation leaves the audience hoping for greater excavation: How did no one in the tiny town notice her living in a mill? What child needs 15 stitches down her neck, only for the story not to follow up on her? Too often, Jo’s physical trauma is made tangential to Gunner’s spiritual journey, as if the two themes don’t require separate, specific care.

Lonnie Chavis grins at Amiah Miller, who looks doubtful, in The Water Man. Photo: RLJE Films

Alfred Molina also appears in the film, as a local mortician who once sought the Water Man in the hopes of talking with his deceased father one last time. Molina, at best, serves as a minor plot device used to provide Gunner with information concerning the fable. But with a little more effort from the filmmakers, he’d have added a richer older perspective to the death-defined story. There’s a sense here that Oyelowo and Needell want the fantastical fun of a Spielberg classic without laying the necessary emotional groundwork for the kids’ problems to be fully felt. Without that dimension, the genuine message driving the action — death can’t be avoided, so cherish the time you have with your loved ones — doesn’t have the sizable impact that the intriguing premise promises.

If not for the uptempo rhythm, The Water Man’s thin plotting would make it a slog. If not for Oyelowo’s handsomely mounted camera capturing the forest in supernatural blues and reds, the audience’s attention might wander to their phones. Thankfully, the well-executed components support the fairy tale when the tale itself runs short. And so do the endearing performances the new director pulls from the young Chavis and Miller. In the energetically adventurous The Water Man, Oyelowo takes the route less traveled by actors-turned-directors to fashion a highly flawed but promising lesson for dealing with mortality — a moral that will hit very close to home for an unfortunate number of families.

The Water Man opens in theatrical release on May 7.