“The Water Man” is a gorgeous looking tween fantasy/adventure in the “Bridge to Terabithia” tradition, well-cast and designed to tug at the heartstrings.
But the feature directing debut of co-star David Oyelowo (“Selma”) is a Bridge to Nowhere — dramatically flat and emotionally lacking. Simply put, the manipulations required to draw out tears don’t manipulate and the quest — for a scary and mythic forest dweller who has supposedly become immortal — is a dead end.
The message may come through loud and clear, but the movie delivering it’s a bit of a muddle.
Lonnie Chavis of TV’s “This is Us” is Gunner, the new kid in his small Oregon town, a loner who rides about on an electric scooter, haunting the bookstore and eavesdropping on funerals as he does “research” for the graphic novel he’s writing about a detective investigating his own murder.
Dad (Oyelowo) is retired from the Navy. But doting Mom (Rosario Dawson at her earthy, nurturing best) is sick. She’s wearing a lot of headscarves and closing the door to the bathroom. A lot.
Her son has BIG questions. “Where do we go when we die?” But she’s not ready to deal with that.
“That’s easy. The cheesecake factory.“
Dad, who spent much of Gunner’s childhood overseas, is an stressed and short-tempered stranger and of little comfort.
There’s this local myth, fancifully illustrated — comic book animation style — of a sort of “Slender Man” in the dense forest up around Wild Horse. The Water Man may be just a tale “parents tell their kids to keep them out of the woods,” or he might be — the charismatic homeless girl Jo (Amiah Miller, showcased as Jodie Foster/Chloe Grace Moretz, The Next Generation) tells the other kids who come to hear her stories in her secret camp.
That’s something else Gunner overhears. As he gets a grip on what’s going on with his mother, he realizes book research isn’t enough. He’s got to “find the Water Man,” this immortal boogeyman, and figure out his secret, that “fire” on his chest that’s some sort of talisman against death.
He gets tips from a reclusive “expert” (Alfred Molina). But to find Wild Horse and his quarry, he needs somebody who says she’s seen him — Jo. She’ll take him — for the right price.
And Dad? He’s desperate to get the sheriff (Maria Bello) to help him find his kid.
Screenwriter Emma Needell’s first produced screenplay wears its antecedents too obviously and puts its message — “Every one you love will one day leave you.” — ahead of suspense, entertaining action, frights, the works.
Losing track of, even failing to so much as mention your title character for most of a 90 minute movie means you fail to build up the myth and leave out the implicit threat in an unseen “boogeyman.”
That makes for a “Terabithia” meets “It!” that’s harmless and not entirely charmless, but more a collection of pretty locations (Oregon), good actors and a couple of kids who barely hold our interest in a journey that less interesting than the destination, which isn’t interesting at all.
MPA Rating: PG for thematic content, scary images, peril and some language
Cast: Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina and Maria Bello.
Credits: Directed by David Oyelowo, script by Emma Needell. An RLJE release.
Running time: 1:32