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The Water Man review – David Oyelowo’s charming directorial debut | Toronto film festival 2020
When an experienced actor steps behind the scenes to become a multi-hyphenate, one usually assumes their directorial debut will have a revealing, if often self-indulgent, autobiographical element. But as much as we might have learned about Greta Gerwig from Lady Bird or Viggo Mortensen from this year’s Falling, there’s arguably more to unpack when a star decides to go entirely off-piste to tell someone else’s story. Bradley Cooper’s crowd-pleasing remake of A Star is Born and Ben Affleck’s troubling, muscular adaptation of Gone Baby Gone showed them to be serious, ambitious film-makers with lofty aspirations whereas Ryan Gosling’s disastrous Cannes flop Lost River revealed him as someone who’s spent too much time pretentiously fanboying over Nicolas Winding-Refn.
Premiering as one of the more proudly mainstream offerings at this year’s Toronto film festival, David Oyelowo’s sweet-natured family adventure The Water Man gives us our first look at a commercial conductor in training, aiming to excite and thrill with adventure while making an unashamed appeal to our emotions shortly after, a Spielbergian combination that many have tried and failed to perfect. Oyelowo has stated that his inspirations include The Goonies and ET and while his film isn’t quite as well-calibrated, it’s an admirable attempt, refreshingly straightforward and devoid of the smug, wink-wink nostalgia that’s plagued 80s-aping family films of late.
Based on a 2015 Black List script by Emma Needell but intentionally feeling more like an adaptation of a much-loved children’s novel, The Water Man focuses on Gunner (This Is Us star Lonnie Chavis), an 11-year-old bookworm who spends more time in the world of fantasy than at home, an understandable escape given his terse military father (Oyelowo) and his warm yet gravely ill mother (Rosario Dawson). After moving from the city to a new town, Gunner’s imagination is encouraged by the myth of the Water Man, a figure who is said to hold the key to immortality deep in the surrounding forests. With his mother’s condition worsening by the day, Gunner comes up with a dangerous plan.
Almost immediately into The Water Man, Oyelowo proves himself to be a sure hand behind the camera, confidently steering us through familiar motions, gracing his film with a grand sense of scale despite its intimate focus. It’s a Disney film that Disney decided to back away from before production yet a sense of the studio’s magic remains and one hopes that the producer Oprah Winfrey is able to guide it to a big screen release it so deserves (it remains without distribution). But while Oyelowo gets points for ambition, he loses some for pace, a problem shared with Needell and her patchy script. Gunner’s voyage into the forest to find the Water Man (with help from War for the Planet of the Apes star Amiah Milller) comes a little too soon into the film after just a handful of scenes with his parents. The dynamic that drives him and us though the film is then a bit thin which in turn makes the inevitable emotional climax a bit lacklustre, a shame given the three performances at its centre.
Oyelowo and Dawson are reliably strong, the latter in particular deftly finds the heart in an underwritten sick mum role, but it’s Chavis who lifts the film, an unusually natural and charismatic young actor whose wealth of high-emotion experience on This is Us has equipped him well for his performance here. He’s a star and even when the film is stuck in third gear, he races ahead, dragging us with him. The journey into the forest is perhaps not quite as thrilling as it could be (again, there’s a pacing issue with some of the action sequences despite vibrant cinematography from Marvel favourite Matthew J Lloyd) although a last act wildfire does make for an unintentionally timely and urgent climax.
Like Penguin Bloom, also premiering at this year’s festival, it’s mostly a pleasure to sit with an earnest, old-fashioned family film such as this, one with its heart on its sleeve and its tongue far far away from its cheek. If nothing else, The Water Man is an impactful calling card for Oyelowo, whose choice of debut is a sign of exciting, and big, things to come.
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