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#TIFF20 Review: The Water Man (Special Events)

September 20, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Making his feature directorial debut, actor David Oyelowo crafts a wonderful and nostalgic throwback to the classic kids adventure films of the 1980s with The Water Man, which I’m pleased to say is one of the nicest surprises of this year’s festival.

The film’s protagonist is Gunner Boon (Lonnie Chavis), a bright, imaginative kid who loves reading Sherlock Holmes stories and hanging out in a used bookshop, providing inspiration for the graphic novel he is working on. Gunner has just moved to the small town of Pine Mills with his father (Oyelowo) and mother (Rosario Dawson), who has leukemia.

When his mother’s condition worsens and she becomes terminally ill, Gunner’s imagination is lit up by stories of the Water Man, a local legend in town about a miner who was able to cheat death and now has magical healing powers. As the story goes, the Water Man still haunts the forest in search of his dead wife. Joined by a local girl named Jo (Amiah Miller), who claims to have encountered the Water Man, Gunner runs away and sets out on an adventure through the woods in search of the mysterious figure, in hopes that he will be able to cure his ailing mother.

Sharing its DNA with The Goonies and Stand By Me, The Water Man serves as a loving tribute to these beloved ’80s adventure films, (Gunner even has an E.T. lunchbox on his desk), and Oyelowo nails this tone perfectly. Working from a nicely written screenplay by Emma Needell, which appeared on the Black List of unproduced screenplays in 2015, Oyelowo’s film has a magical feel to it, along with just the right amount of spookiness.

The story uses fantasy to sensitively explore very real themes about grief and mortality, in a way that calls to mind the children’s classics Bridge to Terabithia and A Monster Calls, and the touching family bond at the centre of The Water Man is what holds it together. The detective story that Gunner is writing is also cleverly incorporated into the film’s narrative, and his drawings are brought to life through some wonderful bits of animation.

Chavis capably carries the film on his shoulders, supported by touching performances from Dawson and Oyelowo. The cast is rounded out by Alfred Molina in a fun role as a funeral home director, and Maria Bello as a police officer. With a little bit of The Goonies, a little bit of Stand By Me, a little bit of Bridge to Terabithia, and a little bit of A Monster Calls, The Water Man is a heartfelt and immensely enjoyable family film that deserves a wider audience.

Lonnie Chavis, David Oyelowo and Rosario Dawson in The Water Man

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 19th – 4:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, September 19th – 6:00 PM at Bell Digital Cinema (Online for 24 Hours)

Saturday, September 19th – 7:30 PM at Visa Skyline Drive-In at CityView

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