As a child of the ‘80s, my early years were defined by iconic Amblin movies. The Goonies, Back to the Future, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial played on my TV on a loop. These Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s production company) classics presented all kinds of fantastic stories ranging from The Goonies’ young gang of small-town treasure hunters to Marty McFly’s time-hopping adventures. The one thing that these disparate films all have in common is their whiteness.
As a kid, the only way I could have enjoyed Gremlins and Harry and the Hendersons even more than I did was if they starred people who looked like me. As much as I could identify with the kids on screen, these movies reinforced a problematic message. The non-inclusive casting showed me that these fantastic worlds weren’t for people of colour. They were white spaces.
It took a while—a very long while—but I’m finally seeing Hollywood put younger versions of myself on screen. I was so pleased to discover Stranger Things’ young black Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast, Lucas. And when Lovecraft Country recently introduced us to comic book writing sci-fi nerd Diana Freeman, I was ready to shed a tear. Had I grown up watching characters who resembled me, I may have opted to act in front of the camera rather than a become writer, someone who works outside of the spotlight.
David Oyelowo’s directing debut, The Water Man, takes the proven Amblin movie formula (right down to the vintage-looking poster) but adds a significant twist. This time, the comic book-loving small-town child with a heart of gold is a person of colour.
When the film begins, Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) and his family have just moved to the small town of Pine Mills. Gunner’s dad Amos (David Oyelowo), has recently resigned from military service to stay home and care for his ailing wife, Mary (Rosario Dawson).
Being a bookworm, Gunner comes across some info that may hold the key to saving his mom. One book mentions the story of a local legend called the Water Man. People say that the Water Man, who haunts the local forest, possesses the power to preserve life.
Gunner’s quest to find the mythical figure unites him with a local rascal named Jo (Amiah Miller). Jo claims to knows how to track the Water Man down, and she’ll help Gunner out for a price.
The Water Man has the same feeling as the whimsical ‘80s classics that inspired it. But it can’t match their sense of grandiosity. The Goonies fight gangsters, explore booby-trapped caves, and discover a pirate ship. In contrast, Gunner and Jo stumble through a forest. Cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd still delivers plenty of striking visuals—Jo’s graffiti-covered hideout looks divine. I love how Gunner’s drawings come alive and offer glimpses of what’s going on in his troubled mind.
Losing someone you love is never easy. But adults accept death is an inevitable part of life. Children are less equipped to deal with that kind of emotional devastation. So stories aimed at kids about childhood loss and grief toe a fine line.
A smart story about death prepares children for one of life’s most difficult challenges. But should the message be too blunt, you may damage a kid’s emotional well-being. Films like My Neighbor Totoro and A Monster Calls use the realm of fantasy to soften their tough messages. The best movies in this group help children consider mature themes without sending them into an existential crisis.
Working off Emma Needell’s screenplay, Oyelowo never speaks down to his younger viewers. And the result is a fantastical family-friendly story grounded in real-world issues. Know going in that Oyelowo doesn’t pull his punches. The plot centres on a boy seeking out a magical cure, but this story is about Gunner conquering his own fear of death.
The Water Man proves that Oyelowo has the goods both in front of and behind the camera. While The Water Man doesn’t reach the same heights as the films that inspired it, this movie is more than worth your time. Most importantly, with a loving black family at the heart of the story, I’m most excited by the thought of all the films The Water Man will inspire.