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TIFF 2020 Review: The Water Man

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Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) is an adolescent trying to cope with the fact that his beloved mother (Rosario Dawson) is dying from leukemia and goes on a quest to find a mythical figure who might be able to grant her eternal life.

Whereas Gunner has an extremely close relationship with his mother, the same is not true with his father Amos (David Oyelowo) as both of them struggle to find a way to communicate with each other.  The adolescent has a fertile imagination fueled by books and a fascination about death which stems from his terminally ill mother; he is a talented artist who envisions his comic book panels literally coming to life on the page and in reality.  Struggling to come up with a cure for his mother, Gunner comes across a teenager named Jo (Amiah Miller) who claims to have encountered a local legend known as the Water Man and points to the scar on her neck as proof; he hires her as a guide in hopes that legend is true and that the mysterious rock at the centre of it will be able to restore the health of his mother.

Check out all of our TIFF coverageA key cue for the tone is the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial lunchbox that makes an appearance as David Oyelowo in his directorial debut attempts to channel the Amblin films of the 1980s; he does not quite get there.  The characters portrayed by Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller certainly capture the spirit of children trying to grapple with adult issues such as death and domestic violence through their vivid imaginations and by experiencing a journey of self-discovery.  The computer animation that causes the comic book panels to come to life is a clever and effective storytelling tool but the rest of the movie feels rather flat in comparison.

There are the dark elements found in faerie tales present but they do not feel quite organic.  Dawson is believable and charming as the caring matriarch.  The performance of Oyelowo does not have the same naturalism and part of this might have to do with having to direct and act at the same time which is never an easy task even for veteran filmmakers like Clint Eastwood.  It would have been better if additional narrative time was spent on developing the father and son relationship; this would have helped with the emotional impact of the clearly stated message that oddly enough resonated more in the comic book adaptation The Wolverine.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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