Gunner travels to a local legend about a ghostly being called The Water Man. The area kids hand over their stipends to a blue-haired girl named Jo (Amiah Miller) who not only brags about seeing The Water Man, but has a scar on her neck to prove it. Gunner isn’t an Arthur Conan Doyle fan for nothing. He tracks down a passionate paranoid undertaker (Alfred Molina) who believes The Water Man may hold the key to immortality. Gunner then pays Jo (an experienced grifter) to take her to the ridge where she saw The Water Man. With backpacks full of food and travel supplies, the two children make their way to the dark forest.
It is the story of a quest, the journey of a hero. “The Water Man” delves into its fairytale traps (the bookstore Gunner frequents is called Once Upon a Time), with Gunner and Jo, a Hansel and Gretel duo, overlooked by their parents, standing out for them- themselves, creating their own world together. The forest is full of amazing things that are hard to explain: howls and moans in the distance, treading wild horses, dark and shiny rocks hanging at intervals (breadcrumbs through the forest), a raging river of beetles, and at one point there snow, even though it is July. The children have no way of knowing that a wildfire is raging across the ridge, and they trudge into the conflagration. Along the way, the kids bicker, solve problems and finally bond.
This may all sound trite or simplistic, but it is not, especially with the deeply felt performances of the Four Chiefs. There is a moment when Dawson, seated at the kitchen table, bursts into spontaneous tears, and the scene shows Oyelowo’s sensitivity to the beat of a performance. He lets him play. Chavis and Miller are both extraordinary in this very difficult terrain, moving from a purely transactional relationship to a deep and caring friendship. It’s a heavy material, and both are more than up to the task. And Oyelowo is utterly believable as an emotionally plugged man, feeling the shame of his failures as a father.