Gunner’s mom is very sick. His parents are trying to shield him from the truth, his mom puts on the bravest face she can, when she can, but kids are perceptive. Gunner knows. His mom is going to die.
Mary (Rosario Dawson) has been diagnosed with leukemia; her husband, Amos (David Oyelowo), recently moved the family to Pine Mills, Oregon, where local kids tell of a bogeyman out in the forest. The Water Man is said to have mysterious healing powers, bringing dead creatures back to life, basically haunting the hills, the mere mention of his name enough to scare children. Including Gunner, who is afraid but hopeful. If only he can be courageous enough to track him down, surely the Water Man will agree to heal Mary as well.
This isn’t just some ghost story, it’s a fully-realized fantasy film for children, one that’s grounded by real-world problems that help us orient Gunner’s situation and give the story some real perspective. The Water Man myth is an impractical solution to a serious problem, but it gives an 11 year old child a goal, a way to not feel so helpless during a time when he clearly needs to regain a measure of control just to feel a little more safe in his world.
A lot of horror movies prey on our fear of death; we humans are fairly predictable and unified when it comes to that. Gunner, however, is fighting for his mother’s life, giving his cause and adventure a sense of courageous nobility, not to mention urgency. Believing the monster to be real, needing him to be real, Gunner accepts the threat to his own life is worth the possibility of saving or even extending his mother’s. That’s a pretty intense equation for such a young protagonist, yet Lonnie Chavis is self-assured in the role, the actor confident even when the character falters. It’s a tall order for a young man, he Chavis has the chops to fill a hero’s shoes. Dawson has much less to do, playing a saintly mother with not a blemish to her good name and thus nowhere to take or build her character. Oyelowo is the more interesting parent, a flawed and fallible man who’s got his hands full between his dying wife, new job, and runaway son.
Gunner’s confrontation with mortality is the central theme of the film. Oyelowo’s direction revolves around it. Since adults are so uncomfortable with grief and death, we tiptoe around it with kids, but if nothing else, Gunner proves how much they can take, how resilient they are, and how much they pick up whether we intend them to or not. The film is a terrific conversation starter for parents and kids to talk openly about death and why it doesn’t have to be scary. Oyelowo has a lot of respect for the kids in his audience, and The Water Man serves them exactly as much as they can take.