'The Water Man' Review: David Oyelowo Makes His Directorial Debut With A Wholesome Adventure [TIFF 2020]

"Anything that basically is overtly celebrating darkness and to be perfectly honest, sanctioning it," David Oyelowo told NPR in 2015, "that's something I can't personally do [...] I know that films affect and shape culture, and I want to put stuff in the world that I feel is edifying as opposed to stuff that is detrimental."

As Oyelowo steps behind the camera for his feature directorial debut, it's helpful to keep the star's words in mind. The Water Man is nothing if not a brand extension for his humane, compassionate touch. Even if it's not a particularly distinguished charge out of the gate for him as a director, the film's gentle and caring embrace of the audience still feels warm all the same.

The Water Man might seem like yet another entry in the endless parade of Spielberg-inspired adolescent oriented action flicks, a comparison that Oyelowo himself does not shy away from. After all, his young protagonist Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) has an E.T. lunchbox out on his desk! But unlike other aspiring Spielbergs of his generation, Oyelowo is less focused on infantilizing viewers through overwhelming spectacle and boundless ingenuity. He's more interested in recapturing the confusion and despair of being a young person confronted by forces that feel unfamiliar and out of control. It's a full-throated embrace of the "family" film, too, providing access points and instructive lessons for children and parents alike.

The film's wholesome adventure begins with aspiring artist Gunner feels at his wit's end in his Oregonian home. His mother Mary (Rosario Dawson) does not seem to respond to treatment for her leukemia, and his emotionally distant father Amos (Oyelowo) appears unable – perhaps even unwilling – to hold the family together. With his uncertain future difficult to ponder, Gunner begins to feel the allure and pull of fantasy calling. In particular, he's drawn to a local urban legend about an immortal being with regenerative powers known as the Water Man.

Gunner sets off to find the mythical being with the help of the mysterious, rebellious Jo Riley (Amiah Miller), a young girl who claims to have had an encounter with him. From there, The Water Man follows two journeys: Gunner and Jo, along with Amos to track them down. Like any cinematic trek into the unknown, the voyage is fraught with peril for the youngsters. And without ever exceeding the boundaries of PG-fare, Oyelowo makes the threats feel quite real.

The nature and progression of the danger will not feel like anything revelatory to viewers familiar with youthful incarnations of the adventure film. Even at 92 minutes, The Water Man manages to feel a bit waterlogged thanks to screenwriter Emily A. Needell's relatively uninspired embrace of standard plot beats. In addition, the short runtime gives scant opportunity to develop the figures on screen, making the characters feel as lightly sketched as the images in Gunner's notebooks.

But there's something about the way Oyelowo handles the film's traumatic core that does feel quite bracing. It's not just because he shares Spielberg's penchant for not patronizing kids. Oyelowo confronts tough topics, including abandonment, illness and abuse, head-on, not only from the comfortable remove of its fantastical framing. The promise of adventure collides with the inevitability of reality.

The Water Man locates fantasy along the same spectrum as a lie told to protect oneself or others. It's not merely an escape hatch or a coping mechanism to avoid the harsh truth of growing up and losing innocence. Here, it's a circuitous route of trap doors leading the characters back towards what they flee. But it also reconnects them with each other and the anxieties they share but might not openly express.

Oyelowo is not necessarily going to breathe new life into the genre with this sober, earnest take on old-fashioned adventure tropes. But perhaps he'll meet some viewers who will respond to his clear-eyed message: things might not always turn out okay or the way we want them. We don't have to retreat into our imaginations, however, to find the help we need. Often times, it's already there in our homes and lives, waiting to be discovered by means ordinary or extraordinary.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10