Gunner trips over a local legend about a ghostly being called The Water Man. Local kids hand over their allowances to a blue-haired girl named Jo (Amiah Miller) who brags that not only has she seen The Water Man, but she’s got a scar on her neck to prove it. Gunner isn’t an Arthur Conan Doyle fan for nothing. He tracks down a paranoid passionate undertaker (Alfred Molina) who believes The Water Man may hold the key to immortality. Gunner then pays Jo (a practiced grifter) to take him up to the ridge where she saw The Water Man. With knapsacks full of food and supplies for the journey, the two children head into the dark forest.
This is the story of a quest, a hero’s journey. “The Water Man” leans in to its fairytale trappings (the bookstore Gunner frequents is called Once Upon a Time), with Gunner and Jo a Hansel and Gretel duo, neglected by their parents, striking out on their own, creating their own world together. The forest is full of astounding and not-easily-explainable things: howls and moans in the distance, stampeding wild horses, dark shining rocks hung at intervals (bread crumbs through the forest), a raging river of beetles, and at one point it snows, even though it’s July. The children have no way of knowing that a forest fire is raging out of control on the other side of the ridge, and they are trudging right into the conflagration. Along the way, the children bicker, problem-solve, and finally bond.
This all may sound trite or simplistic, but it’s not, especially with the deeply felt performances from all four leads. There’s one moment where Dawson, sitting at the kitchen table, bursts into spontaneous tears, and the scene shows Oyelowo’s sensitivity to the rhythm of a performance. He lets it play out. Both Chavis and Miller are extraordinary in what is very difficult terrain, moving from a purely transactional relationship into a deep and caring friendship. This is heavy material, and both of them are more than up to it. And Oyelowo is completely believable as an emotionally stopped-up man, feeling the shame at his failings as a father.