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Water Man, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Basic, quality kids' fare."
3 stars

"The Water Man" is a movie of charmingly modest ambitions, an adventure for kids that doesn't slip in anything that's just for the parents or aim to be the start of a larger series. It's pretty good little movie that will hopefully get a few people to come to matinees before disappearing into the vague "family" category online.

In it, the Boone family has recently moved to Pine Mills, Oregon; father Amos (David Oyelowo) has recently left the Navy so that he can be with wife Mary (Rosario Dawson) as she fights leukemia, while son Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) is spending his time reading Sherlock Holmes and drawing his own graphic novel. When Mary takes a turn for the worse and Amos has difficulty handling the stress, Gunner latches on to the local legend of "The Water Man", an obsession of local undertaker Jim Bussey (Alfred Molina), who claims the spooky figure in the woods has healing powers. Homeless girl Jo (Amiah Miller) claims to have seen him, so Gunner convinces her to help him look, hoping to find a way to heal his mom.

Co-star David Oyelowo has been spending a fair amount of time working on family movies of late - it hasn't been his entire focus, but he seems to be taking the desire to make something his kids can watch more to heart than many actors do, even choosing this film as his first feature to direct. He and writer Emily A. Needell do good work in how they portray their two young main characters - both Gunnar and Jo are somewhat precocious, but they never have the voices of clever adults. They're cringe-y at times, but also allowed to be honestly scared or full of bluster. Just as important, Amos and Mary Boone are models of parents who strive to do their best but often fall short, and both they and Maria Bello's sheriff are given a chance to explain why they make the decisions they do. It's a kid-centric film, but neither one that presupposes kids and adults as fundamentally opposed to each other nor one that speeds past the things which might seem boring on the page but which are actually pretty useful for communicating to a young audience - and in doing so, it maybe gives the adults in the audience more than just double-entendres for their time.

That said, it aims to be a fun adventure first and foremost, and it is that. With Gunner's interest in fantasy adventures established early, it spins a yarn about its title character that's just scary enough to be exciting and keeps the audience in that space as the kids head into the woods, offering stuff that seems a bit weird to keep one curious but never underselling that just these two tweens being in the woods alone is dangerous (even without smoke from wildfires starting to appear on the horizon early enough to make one worry). There's samurai swords, unexpected wild animals, fallen trees, spooky things hanging from branches, and bugs (so many bugs!). Animated bits let Oyelowo and company save things for later without completely hiding them, and there's room for the father to make good without completely pulling things out of Gunner and Jo's hands.

Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller make a fun pair as the two kids - Chavis' Gunner is booking but not just nerdy, and Miller's good at showing how much Jo is putting on a front even though kids might still buy it. They play well off each other without ever being flustered by one another. It also never hurts when this sort of movie has a bunch of pros who treat a family movie as more than just a favor or something to do for their kids in the cast: Oyelowo commits to both the comedic and dramatic bits of Amos being a bit of a fish out of water in this small town after his time in the Navy, and he's got nice chemistry with Rosario Dawson. Alfred Molina has fun with the character of the local crackpot without ever seeming unreal. Most everyone else hits all the right notes as well.

It's a nice-looking movie, too, though not showy - Oyelowo and all aren't looking to innovate here, or transcend their genre, or otherwise garner superlatives. They're making a movie that can entertain and hopefully speak to kids, and they wind up doing a pretty fair job of it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34433&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/12/21 13:39:08
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