An engaging for-kids ghost story whose fantasy elements are thoughtfully grounded by real-world concerns, “The Water Man” ends with a blazing wildfire that is far scarier than the supernatural elements that precede it — especially now, as so much of the Pacific Northwest burns. Fans of David Oyelowo’s acting work might be surprised he chose such a “Goosebumps”-y project as his directorial debut, although it’s pretty cool for younger audiences that the “Selma” star put his clout (with a boost from exec producer Oprah Winfrey) behind a family film.
So what if the movie’s creepy title character is no match for the nightmare of being surrounded by flames? It’s actually pretty smart on the movie’s part to recognize that such disasters — which will only become more common as climate change gets more volatile — have a way of putting everything else into perspective. To some extent, all horror movies are about our fear of death, except in this case, the film’s 11-year-old protagonist, Gunner Boone (Lonnie Chavis), isn’t worried about his own life, but his mother’s.
Mary (Rosario Dawson, saintly) has been diagnosed with leukemia, and her husband, Amos (Oyelowo, playing a more imperfect character), probably didn’t help matters by moving the family to Pine Mills, Ore. — at least not until Gunner begins to hear stories of the Water Man, a local bogeyman with mysterious healing powers. Whereas the other kids Gunner’s age seem to be genuinely scared of meeting this notorious spirit, rumors that the Water Man might be reanimating dead critters in the forest gives Gunner an idea: If he can be courageous enough to find the ghoul, surely he will agree to extend Mary’s life.
That’s probably not the best plan, but Gunner is desperate. He collects all his cash, grabs Dad’s samurai sword from above the mantel — not a bad weapon for defending oneself against ghouls — and asks a slightly older and more-than-slightly intimidating girl to show him the way. Jo (Amiah Miller) claims she has seen the Water Man, and even has the scar to prove it, although one can’t help wondering how Gunner hopes to reason with the zombie-like entity believed to be haunting Wild Horse woods.
It should also be said that Gunner is an avid reader and really ought to know better. Instead, he follows the clues to the local funeral home, where an eccentric undertaker played by Alfred Molina gives him a map and some essential backstory. Legend has it that the Water Man was once a miner named Edward Schaal (Ted Rooney), and that he discovered a magic stone just before a flood swept through town, killing nearly everyone but him. (Hence the water.) He’s been looking for his dead wife ever since, hoping to bring her back.
If this were a traditional ghost story, Gunner would have to assist Schaal in putting whatever tragedy tortures him to rest, but screenwriter Emma Needell is right to recognize that Gunner’s own anxiety matters more. Considering all the near-death brushes his journey with Jo entails, it’s more meaningful to focus on the boy coming to terms with mortality — no small ambition for a mainstream family film.
This is actually one of two youth fantasy movies Oyelowo has made this year, and the other — the Brenda Chapman-directed what-if-Peter-Pan-and-Alice-in-Wonderland-were-siblings movie “Come Away,” in which he also plays the father — similarly tried to present ideas of grief and loss to kids. “The Water Man” does a better job of it, using Mary’s illness not as an excuse to emotionally manipulate audiences, but as the starting point for post-screening conversations between parents and their children about what death means, and why it doesn’t have to be frightening. Like “Bridge to Terabithia,” the movie could be even more valuable as a coping tool than as entertainment.
Oyelowo obviously has a high opinion of his young audience’s intelligence, counting on them to be a few steps of Gunner along the way — as in a magical scene when the boy mistakes ash raining down from the fire for “snow in July.” But he also does a fairly effective job of misleading them, using viewers’ active engagement to build the Water Man into something larger in their imagination than he plans to deliver. That doesn’t mean we never meet the title figure. When he does appear, the Water Man’s as intimidating as the skeletal scalliwags in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” pictures.
That’s just about all Oyelowo’s modestly budgeted debut has in common with recent Disney movies, however. Aesthetically, it feels more like your standard-issue straight-to-streaming fare: professional enough, but not quite big-screen worthy. Even Netflix audiences probably expect a bit more, spoiled as they’ve been by “Stranger Things” and its many Amblin-esque imitators.
“The Water Man” lacks those projects’ sense of atmosphere. It’s over-lit, more like a sitcom than a thriller, and apart from the two kids — who are both terrific, with bright futures ahead — the performances are surprisingly one-dimensional (like Maria Bello as a concerned local cop) considering that the director hails from an acting background. But Oyelowo has kids of his own and doesn’t seem especially worried what adults might think. Under the guise of feeding children’s nightmares, he’s giving them something to dream about.