Review: 'The Water Man' a children's story that respects its audience

David Oyelowo's smart, fun directorial debut is an homage to 1980s-era Steven Spielberg

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A sparkling, wide-eyed adventure that treats children like actual people, not receptacles of marketing garbage, "The Water Man" is a fun, imaginative, heartfelt throwback to a time when kids journeyed through the woods in search of mystical experiences.   

In his directorial debut, actor David Oyelowo fashions "The Water Man" as a tribute to 1980s-era Spielberg; an on-screen homage to "E.T." is no mistake. The film takes place today but phones and other screens rarely come into play. This is a movie about youth, growing up and discovery, and Oyelowo tells his story with a confident, steady hand and an inquisitive mind. It's a movie for kids that adults will appreciate just as much as the young set.  

Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller in "The Water Man."

Lonnie Chavis leads the cast as Gunner Boone, a middle schooler who just moved to Oregon with his parents. His mother (Rosario Dawson) has leukemia, his father (Oyelowo) has difficulty connecting with his son. Gunner, meanwhile, is an artistic type, who is drawing up graphic novel detective stories when he's not burying his nose in other books, absorbing whatever information about the world he can. 

It's summer vacation and Gunner zips around on his motorized scooter, stopping by the used book store and chatting up the shopkeeper. Poking around the outskirts of town, he spots graffiti art of the Water Man, an area legend who is rumored to live deep in the woods and may have discovered the secret to eternal life. Sounds unlikely, but Gunner believes if he can track down this so-called Water Man he can help his mom. A local academic (Alfred Molina) shares details of the Water Man's story, while Jo (Amiah Miller), a street smart girl in town, says she'll take Gunner to the Water Man, for a price. 

So Gunner and Jo set off on an adventure together, Gunner toting his father's sword, just in case the going gets rough. And Oyelowo plays out the tale like he's reading to kids at storytime — not speaking down to them, but looking them in the eye, treating them with respect and meeting them on their level. Emma Needell's script doesn't pander to its audience with cheap references or unneeded distractions. The story's authenticity and honesty is its strength.

Along the way, lessons are taught, but they're more subtle than typical teaching moments of good and bad, right and wrong. "The Water Man" is a sensitive coming of age story about loss, friendship and the need to believe in magic, and Oyelowo proves himself to be a gifted storyteller with a big imagination. Spielberg should be proud. 

'The Water Man'


Rated PG: for thematic content, scary images, peril and some language

Running time: 91 minutes

In theaters