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Review: David Oyelowo’s ambitious directing debut, ‘The Water Man,’ runs lukewarm

Lonnie Chavis, left, and David Oyeylowo sit on a bed in "The Water Man."
Lonnie Chavis, left, and David Oyeylowo in the movie “The Water Man.”
(Karen Ballard / RLJE Films)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

For his first feature in a directorial capacity, British actor David Oyelowo, working from Emily A. Needell’s screenplay, embarked on a fantastical adventure fueled by real-world tribulations. The end result, “The Water Man,” while not altogether graceless, registers as tonally disjointed and ultimately inconsequential in spite of its star-fronted cast.

New in a small American town, Gunner (Lonnie Chavis), an imaginative teenage boy working on an intriguing graphic novel, learns his mother (a stupendous Rosario Dawson) is battling leukemia. Amos, the family’s military patriarch (Oyelowo in an adequate role), finds his son’s interests odd, thus their communication suffers.

Enter Alfred Molina’s character, the local eccentric, telling Gunner the legend of the immortal Water Man in a hand-drawn animated sequence — far and away the film’s most memorable passage — and inspiring him to seek out the ghostly figure’s alchemy in the wilderness to save his loved one. As he joins vagabond girl Jo (Amiah Miller), the tale’s intentions crash and burn somewhere along the road between “Stranger Things” and an Amblin title.

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Lonnie Chavis is embraced by Rosario Dawson in "The Water Man."
Lonnie Chavis and Rosario Dawson in the movie “The Water Man.”
(Karen Ballard / RLJE Films)

Heavy-handed acting from the young cast and Needell’s hackneyed dialogue further unmask the movie’s lack of visual wonder and narrative cohesiveness. In fairness, its honest treatment of child abuse and premature death as plot engines save the ordeal from being totally generic, though emotional equilibrium escapes it.

The cumulative impact of all the relationships is lukewarm, and aside from the animated flourishes, there are few notable aesthetic touches. Even the sword Gunner carries, which his father obtained when he was stationed in Japan, reads like a forced accessory to add a dash of epic flavor to this hero’s journey. Limitations in production value are also made apparent in the more fanciful scenes.

No further validation of Oyelowo’s acting prowess is required, but in this new position calling the shots behind the camera he got lost in the uneven writing’s forest on his way to success. A treacherous mission, “The Water Man” exhibits enough silver linings in its ambition to merit a second try.

‘The Water Man’

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

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Starts May 7 in general release where theaters are open


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