Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Water Man

Taking a week off for IFFBoston means weekday matinees for other stuff, although it would have been nice to see this with a bigger crowd. I'm curious about David Oyelowo doing a few movies like this in the past couple of years (I was really curious about Come Away, but wasn't walking to Watertown the week that was out); a lot of folks sign on to do family movies when their kids reach a certain age, but he seems to be taking that a little more seriously. He's got mixed kids with British parents growing up in America, and seems to get that their being able to see themselves is important.

(I'm also kind of curious about what the numbers are on actors making their directorial debut on splashy passion projects versus small pictures that let them quietly hone their skills like this one.)

Anyway, got a few kid-oriented trailers here, and while I'm happily counting down to "not seeing a preview for Cruella again", with Space Jam 2 solidly in "this will be terrible and I am going to watch it anyway" category, 12 Mighty Orphans has my eyes going up, because it certainly starts off looking like an awful inspirational sports thing, and I'm not sure about Luke Wilson's accent or Wayne Knight seemingly trying to channel Stephen Root, but Robert Duvall shows up about three-quarters the way through it. Who doesn't enjoy seeing Robert Duvall in movies, and at 90 years old, he doesn't have to do stuff just to work, but must see something in them to show up on set. His judgment may not be as good as Redford in that regard, but he certainly makes it more interesting.

The Water Man

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 May 2021 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, DCP)

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.

Also at eFilmCritic

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