David Oyelowo, who directed the film, and Rosario Dawson in “The Water Man.” Karen Ballard/RLJE films/ShivHans Pictures

In “The Water Man,” an assured, richly appointed directorial debut by David Oyelowo, the filmmaker nods toward his aesthetic roots when his main character briefly opens his “E.T.” lunchbox.

That flash of retro pop culture feels right at home in this sensitive family drama, in which Lonnie Chavis plays Gunner Boone, a serious-minded only child who has just moved with his parents, Amos (Oyelowo) and Mary (Rosario Dawson), to fictional Pine Mills, Oregon.

Gunner is happier sketching his graphic novel – about a detective investigating his own murder – than tossing the football Amos eagerly brings into his room, only to be rebuffed; the two have a strained relationship, especially compared with the intuitive closeness Gunner shares with his mom. But that relationship has its own challenges, many of which hover around its edges, as Mary fights a terminal illness while trying to keep its ravages and fatal implications a secret from her son.

Lonnie Chavis and Amiah Miller in “The Water Man.” Karen Ballard/RLJE films/ShivHans Pictures

Such are the somber underpinnings of “The Water Man,” which centers on Gunner’s search for the title character, a local legend said to possess powers of immortality. With the help of a coolly self-possessed older girl named Jo (Amiah Miller), Gunner sets forth on a frightening life-or-death quest that will put the two in increasing danger as they plunge deeper into the mysterious forest bordering their town.

Based on a script by Emma Needell, “The Water Man” wears its inspirations proudly, from that Spielbergian lunchbox to frequent references to Sherlock Holmes. Oyelowo does a superb job of balancing the story’s most somber elements with preteen adventure and moments of mordant humor: In a quiet moment with Mary, Gunner asks if she knows where people go when they die. “That one’s easy,” she replies. “Cheesecake Factory.”

Still, the overarching tone of “The Water Man” is one of impending grief, real-world anxieties that Oyelowo doesn’t shy away from, and that he and his fellow castmates lean into with just a light enough touch to keep things from getting maudlin. (Supporting players include Maria Bello as the local sheriff and Alfred Molina as an eccentric funeral director.) Chavis, best known from his work on the television show “This Is Us,” brings admirable focus to his role as a young man who’s both wiser than his years and utterly unprepared for the most devastating losses of adulthood; he and Miller have an easy and convincing chemistry as temperamental opposites who nonetheless develop a bond borne of shared pain.

Filmed with an eye for rich production values and spectacular natural vistas, “The Water Man” is that rare family film that isn’t a nonstop CGI stunt or lowest-denominator exercise in cheap laughs. Rather, it’s grounded in recognizable, if admittedly unwelcome, realities of real life, even when it indulges in occasional flights of fancy (the pencil-drawing animations that bring Gunner’s work to life are particularly arresting). Oyelowo brings a thoughtful sensibility and thoroughgoing good taste to the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t produce anymore but shouldn’t be so quick to discard. There are as many absorbing, affecting family films to be made as there are families to enjoy them.

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