The Water Man





With his directorial debut, David Oyelowo fashions a beautifully crafted family tale of 

mortality, magic and hope.

Water Man, The

Searching for Water Man: Amiah Miller and Lonnie Chavis


Childhood ain’t what it used to be. In fact, in today’s world, childhood is a precious commodity beyond imagining. Yet it behoves the cinema to reflect the current crises in our culture, even in films designed for the young at heart. In spite of their appeal, classics like The Railway Children and Swallows and Amazons belong to another era and have to make way for (exceptional) films like Bridge to Terabithia, Wonderstruck and Queen of Katwe. David Oyelowo was the star of the last named and has recently appeared in the child-friendly Come Away (2020) and Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (2020). Not surprisingly, he has four children of his own. He was so beguiled by Emma Needell’s script of The Water Man that he agreed to produce it and, when the director fell through, to take over the artistic reins as well. Oyelowo has never directed a film before, but he has a terrific eye and a way with working with children – and he doesn’t kowtow to the lowest common denominator. The Water Man deals with adult subjects: leukaemia, child abuse, poverty, climate change, the afterlife – but are viewed from a child’s perspective. It is also a film about magic, hope and the imagination, and the healing powers of the latter. Initially, it shares a resonance with A Monster Calls, but is firmly based in a recognisable reality, and is all the better for it.


David Oyelowo and Rosario Dawson play Amos and Mary Boone, who have recently moved to Pine Mills, in Oregon. Mary has leukaemia and is hiding the severity of the disease from their eleven-year-old son, Gunner (an engaging Lonnie Chavis). Gunner is wrapped up in his own world of drawing and writing and is working on a graphic novel with enormous potential. But when he comes to understand the seriousness of his mother’s illness, he is determined to find a solution. He’s heard about the healing powers of a mythical figure in the woods known as the Water Man and sets out to find him…


Pine Mills is a backwater with more than its share of charm (even if the local Chinese only plays Country & Western music). Besides, there’s a second-hand bookshop with a piano played by its proprietor (Jessica Oyelowo, the director’s wife). It’s here that Gunner, an avid reader, checks out every book he can find on leukaemia. The boy is devoted to his mother, whereas, in his eyes, he can never seem to please his father.


While the family’s new home is a comfortable and cultural haven, complete with lush furnishings, distinctive art and an antler chandelier, there is a creepiness to Pine Mills. Amos – with a fraction of his son’s imagination – comments, “this town is weird.”  Likewise, a local girl with blue hair (Amiah Miller) – who tells ‘stories’ for pocket money – informs Gunner that “there’s some weird stuff going on.” How weird is up to the film to reveal, while it sprinkles clues and red herrings tantalizingly in our path.


As Gunner, Lonnie Chavis is a real find, at times recalling a young Will Smith. Amiah Miller, too, is first-rate company, a 13-year-old actress with a promising future ahead of her; and Rosario Dawson brings a wisdom and playful warmth to her role. Peter Baert's wonderful score adds a magical sheen, and the animated sequences (echoing Gunner’s graphic novel) are a lovely, understated touch. Above all, Oyelowo has fashioned a credible world with believable characters, while never letting the magic slip. It’s quite a feat, and an enchanting and moving one at that.




Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello, Aaron Trainor, Ted Rooney, Jessica Oyelowo, John Henry Whittaker, Daniel Vasic.


Dir David Oyelowo, Pro David Oyelowo, Carla Gardini, Shivani Rawat and Monica Levinson, Ex Pro Oprah Winfrey, Screenplay Emma Needell, Ph Matthew J. Lloyd, Pro Des Laurence Bennett, Ed Blu Murray, Music Peter Baert, Costumes Nadine Haders, Sound Erick Ocampo.


ShivHans Pictures/Harpo Films/Yoruba Saxon Productions-Netflix.

92 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 9 July 2021. Available on Netflix. Cert. 12A.