When one thinks of author Stephen King, visions of horror and gore and things that go bump in the night are likely to follow. But there is a gentler, more heartfelt Stephen King--the man who penned the novella, "The Body," which was turned into the classic 1986 film "Stand by Me," as well as the serial novel, "The Green Mile
." It is this softer King that "Hearts in Atlantis," based on two of the stories in his anthology novel of the same name, stems from.
Directed by Scott Hicks (1999's "Snow Falling on Cedars
"), "Hearts in Atlantis" is a lovingly crafted, nostalgia-filled walk through memory lane. It is not all sunshine and roses, however, as the dysfunction of families, the growing pains of prepubescent kids, and an underlying mystery sweep over the proceedings.
Bobby Garfield (David Morse) has returned to the quaint New England town of his childhood for the first time in almost forty years to attend the funeral of an old friend named Sully (played as a child by Will Rothhaar). Later, he learns that the girl he loved as a child, Carol, has also passed away, something that tears Bobby up inside. Revisiting his old house, which is now broken down and boarded up, he allows his mind to drift back to 1963.
The bulk of the film is told in an elongated flashback, as young Bobby (Anton Yelchin) receives a library card instead of the bicycle he wanted for his 11th birthday from his self-centered, widowed mother (Hope Davis). Stubbornly insisting she doesn't have the money to buy him much of anything, Bobby really knows that she simply spends it all on expensive dresses for herself. Bobby's life is changed with the arrival of the enigmatic Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), a self-proclaimed "strange" retiree who moves into their upstairs apartment. Ted proposes to give Bobby one dollar each week if he will read the newspaper to him (his eyes aren't as strong as they used to be), as well as keep a lookout for any signs of "low men"--dark, dangerous figures in wide-brimmed hats who he claims are out to get him. They form a quick, close bond, all the while Bobby experiences first love with the glorious Carol Gerber (Mika Boorem), his best friend.
There are three key relationships dealt with in "Hearts in Atlantis"--that of Bobby and his mother, Bobby and Carol, and Bobby and Ted--of which the former two are more successful than the latter. The film, unfortunately, focuses primarily on the weakest of the three, and while Anthony Hopkins (2001's "Hannibal
") is his usual radiant, understated self as Ted Brautigan, the subplot involving his psychic abilities and fear of the "low men" doesn't quite fit with the more realistic sections of the picture. Slightly uneven and with too much screen time devoted to it, the fatherly bond that forms between Ted and Bobby, nonetheless, remains quietly touching.
Faring better is the lovely friendship between Bobby and Carol, which radiates the innocence and beauty of childhood first loves. A scene set atop a carnival ferris wheel, as Bobby and Carol experience their first kiss, is nothing short of enchanting, and the young performers are real finds. Anton Yelchin (2001's "Along Came a Spider
") must carry the whole movie, as it is told from his point-of-view, and he does a wonderful job of expressing the wide-eyed savviness of a kid on the verge of becoming a teenager. Even better is Mika Boorem (also in "Along Came a Spider
"), a glorious standout as the angelic Carol.
Finally, the rocky mother-son relationship is one that, for once, does not feel like a cliche. Bobby's mother is not an idyllic, loving parent, and yet she isn't presented as an entirely cruel person, either. Instead, screenwriter William Goldman (1999's "The General's Daughter
") and actress Hope Davis (1999's "Arlington Road
") inject Elizabeth Garfield with more dimensions; she's a flawed woman who does, indeed, care about her son, but can't help but care about herself even more.
Splendidly photographed by late cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (2001's "Angel Eyes
"), for which this was his final project before his death, "Hearts in Atlantis" ends up packing quite a wallop by the finale, as the movie allows the viewer to recollect on their own childhood. Whether it was overall good or bad, everyone has memories of being a kid that rank up there with the best, or most carefree, times of their lives, and it's all the more sad when you finally realize you can never go back to those days.
"Hearts in Atlantis" has its problematic areas, and not every moment is as good as the last, but those sporadic downfalls do not take away the mood or powerful effect that director Scott Hicks creates, as a whole. Most of all, "Hearts in Atlantis" leaves you with something to ponder when the lights come up--a great feat for a relatively slow moviegoing season.
©2001 by Dustin Putman