Movie review: The Water Man

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

“Hope is a powerful force. It made you see what you wanted to see. It made you see … ME.”

There is an immense power at the heart what might seem to be a fairly straightforward film.

That power takes for the form of hope, which might be dismissed by some as pie in the dreaming of little impact or material effect, but which in the hands of The Water Man protagonist Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis), becomes a powerful motivator to do something, anything, to save his mother Mary (Rosario Dawson) who is battling cancer.

So impelling is the muscular hope to which Gunner clings like a life buoy in a storm (for him the possible death of his mother is an existential threat without peer) that it causes him to do some brave and yes, foolhardy things, in the pursuit of a way to heal his mother.

His hope comes from the urban folklore of the town he and his family, which also includes dad Amos (David Oyelowo), have just moved to in Oregon, which tells the scarily fascinating story of a man who survived the deluging of the town by a dam burst many decades earlier during the time of the town’s founding, by holding fast to a magical yellow rock he found while mining.

While the story is real to an extent – the man existed and it seems survives what many others including his wife did not – the breathless imputation that he is still alive in the present day and is able to bring healing and life to people is clearly the stuff of aspirational hopefulness.

After all, who, when faced the grinding, griefstrickening finality of death, wouldn’t wish for a get out of mortal jail free card?

Gunner, at odds with his father and fearing the loss of his mother to whom he is very close – this closeness comes from the many years Amos was in the military leaving Gunner very much in the sole hands of his nurturing, loving mother – more than wishes for the tale of the Water Man to be true.

He needs it to be real overwhelmed as he is by being the new kid in town while struggling to deal with his mum’s illness and his father’s inability to connect with him in any meaningful way and goes to great lengths to find out what he can about it, seeking out a funeral director Jim Bussey (Alfred Molina) who wrote extensively about the tragically mysterious figure of the Water Man in a book Gunner finds at his second home, the Once Upon a Time second-hand bookstore run by Missus Bakemeyer (Jessica Oyelowo).

His search for the urban legend takes him to the woods but on the way he meets tough-talking runaway Jo Riley (Amiah Miller) who claims to have seen the man that Gunner believes is the only thing standing between his mother and death.

The two set off into the woods to find the Water Man, a decision which sets in motion a chain of events which reshapes how Gunner sees the world, his family and most importantly, his dad.

While the narrative itself is reasonably cut and dried, it’s what The Water Man explores that about estrangement, connection, anticipatory grief and possible loss that really infuses the film with thematic power.

Much like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants, both of which delivered an emotional whammy of epic proportions while sensitively and with incisive insight addressed what the trauma of the impending death of a loved one does to the emotional and mental of someone, especially a teenager who is still figuring out life, The Water Man doesn’t stint in portraying what it feels like to be devastatingly close to having your whole world turned upside down.

Bolstered by a nuanced, quietly driven screenplay by Emma Needell, and directed with real compassion and empathy by David Oyelowo, The Water Man invests a great deal of meaningful time and effort into creating an intimate sense of time and place.

As big as this event might be for Gunner, and as seismic as the possible loss of his mother would undoubtedly be, the way it unfolds for the earnest young artist, who is creating a graphic novel throughout where a detective investigates his own death, is in a very closed-in, intensely personal way.

This is reflected not simply in the unhurried way The Water Man tells its story, save for the final act where momentum understandably picks up considerably, but in its exquisitely gentle but impacting use of music, courtesy of Peter Baert, and its willingness to have whole scenes play out with no dialogue, reliant only on the impressive expressiveness of the performers, who are uniformly good, and judicious places of musical passages which are never emotionally manipulative but which work to bolster the story unfurling onscreen.

If you have ever experienced a great loss or come close to experiencing one, Gunner’s earnest desperation to have his mother makes profound sense.

Especially when you consider that for many of us the loss of a parent occurs when we are considerably older and at least have the tools to deal with the loss (though, of course, the loss remains every bit as devastating) and yet in The Water Man, Gunner is having to deal with it barely into his teens.

It’s a lot for anyone to handle, with every last fibre of the panic and emotional stress this would cause etched out on Chavis’s face as he seeks to find out if the stuff of myth and legend might just be able to help him with a very real world here-and-now problem.

As the quote from the film at the start of this review makes movingly clear, hope is immensely, world-changingly powerful and even if it doesn’t play out the way you think it will, it can bring about change you never even knew you needed, something to which Gunner can attest by film’s end, and remake your world in ways that make life an infinitely better place than it was before you put all your faith in it and leapt into the void, hoping for a good and perfect landing.

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