Gunner Boone isn’t the kind of kid who garners a lot of attention. In fact, as he pilots his scooter around the streets and dirt roads of his little town—researching locations and situations that might easily be woven into whatever graphic novel he’s currently creating—the 10-year-old goes pretty much unseen. And that suits him just fine.
On the other hand, you could say that Gunner isn’t all that aware of other people, either. But he has noticed that his dad has been spending a lot more time at home lately. A Navy man who is often stationed overseas, Amos Boone has been home for a while now.
Gunner has also made note of the fact that his beloved mom has been feeling poorly more often, going to the doctor a lot. And even though she tries to keep it quiet, Gunner has heard her getting ill in the bathroom quite a bit lately.
It’s only after Gunner accidently sees his mom with a bald head one morning, that the pieces start coming together. His mom is really sick, he realizes: lukemia sick.
Once that fact finally hits Gunner, he sets aside his graphic novel research and starts scouring medical books on lukemia instead. Of course, he dosen’t find any miracle cures. But what he does find is some curious, hand-witten notes hidden away in one book about someone called the Water Man. And now that he’s found out about this person, it seems that everyone around the area knows of him.
There’s a legend of a local figure who long, long ago managed to cheat death and, some people think, even achieve immortality. The more Gunner digs, the more he listens closely to locals and watches people from the shadows—something he’s become very good at—the more he starts to think that there may be something to this story. An adult mortician in the area even admits to Gunner’s face that he believes that the Water Man was and is real.
Could this be possibly true? Could it even be feasible that this mysterious individual is out lurking in the woods with answers that might save his mom?
The first step is to make friends with a blue-haired girl who lives out by an old abandoned mill. She’s been telling kids stories about actually meeting the fabled Water Man in the woods. The bookish Gunner has absolutely nothing in common with this tough-talking, blue-haired runaway. But he’ll do anything he needs to do to find out the truth.
Yes, if there’s even the smallest chance that a real and true magic cure exists, Gunner will find it.
Both of Gunner’s parents love him dearly. He and his dad don’t always know how to deal with each other, and they sometimes seem to emotionally pass each other like ships in the night. But Amos goes to great lengths to try to understand his son. And when the boy goes missing, he very literally puts his life on the line to find and save him.
In spite of Gunner’s sometimes less-than-wise choices, his reasons for doing everything flow from his deep and sincere love for his mother. And as a side benefit, he and Jo, the blue-haired girl, find they have quite a bit in common, becoming close friends. Gunner and Jo both struggle to help protect each other. Jo eventually becomes close with Gunner’s mom and dad, too. And they offer her something of a surrogate family.
Gunner’s mom repeatedly encourages both of the men in her life to listen to and forgive each other. Gunner asks his dad—in light of his mom’s illness—if he would rather live “a long life with no one else to love” or “a short life with lots of love”? Amos makes it abundantly clear that he would prefer a short life filled with the people he loves (in particular, Gunner’s mom).
After Gunner realizes that Mom has a terminal disease, he asks her about where we go after we die. “No one knows for sure,” she lovingly tells him. “I believe there’s a special place where our souls go. A place we won’t understand until we’re actually there.”
“Like heaven?” Gunner asks. “Yeah,” she assures him with a smile. Mom then goes on to note, “One thing we do know is that we have this time now, and we have to spend every day loving each other.”
There’s what appears to be a “magic” stone in the mix—a glowing mineral that a guy chipped out of a mine hundreds of years before. It brings him back from the dead, bestows him with miraculous cellular regeneration, and gives him the ability to bring dead animals back to life. We see the man’s story drawn out in graphic novel form from Gunner’s point of view. And there are other magical occurrences, too, such as a materializing cabin and snow falling in the heart of summer that seem to be connected magical signs.
[Spoiler Warning] But we later come to realize that the magical happenings are all prompted by a combination of Gunner’s imagination and his passion to find a way to cure his mom. Even some of the things people say to Gunner are slightly reshaped, we find, by his overwhelming desire to find a cure for his mom.
Gunner glances into the bathroom one morning and spots his mom with a bare back and a bald head. Amos and his wife lightly kiss and he holds her close.
There are some moments of peril in Gunner and Jo’s journey. They find themselves amid a raging forest fire, they’re almost run over by a herd of charging horses, and they’re left hanging on to a log suspended over a fast-running river. Gunner also brings along his father’s katana sword—a gift from his stationed duty in Japan. Both kids wield and swing the sword around, but no one is injured by it.
While talking about Gunner’s dad, Jo asks if he is ever violent; Gunner assures her that he isn’t (though he does angrily snap at the boy once, for which he apologizes). It’s strongly implied, however, that Jo’s father was very abusive. We see a scar on her neck that he once gave her.
Gunner faces off with a large, scary man.
We hear single uses of the words “bull—t,” “h—,” “da-mit” and “darn.” Someone tells somebody to “shut-up, idiot!” And a character exclaims, “Holy crap!”
Gunner spots his mom’s prescription for morphine.
Jo steals candy from a gas station. But Gunner, who refuses to lie or steal, won’t eat any of it when she offers. In fact, he’s tempted to report her while still in the gas station.
While Gunner and Jo are camping outdoors under a log, the two awaken to find themselves covered with large cockroaches. Amos defies authorities while heading off in pursuit of his endangered son.
A movie about a family’s struggle with terminal illness probably isn’t up there at the top of your let’s-grab-the-kids-and-run-to-the-movies list. Watching someone, especially a young boy, deal with emotional pain on that level is often a painful thing.
Actor and director David Oyelowo’s take on that subject, however, is something very different from what you might expect. This movie about a mother who’s dying doesn’t wallow in melancholy or anguish. Nor does it gloss over the things that hurt. Instead, the poignant story here mixes deep love and enduring hope together in a beautifully crafted film with just the right touch of imaginative fantasy.
The Water Man is a deftly handled pic that trumpets love and understanding, even in the face of onrushing grief. It sweetly lauds the value of cherishing and making the most of all our moments with the people we love.
That’s a movie message that I’d suggest everyone can appreciate.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.