The cynic may notice only how Hearts in Atlantis plays like a Stephen King best-of compilation, a reheating of familiar stories and favorite themes. At times, it feels so much like Stand by Me — with its nostalgic, flashback tale of cherubs and bullies accompanied by sad and weary narration — you might confuse it as a remake. It also recalls King’s novella Apt Pupil, in which a young boy falls under the sway of an old man with a mysterious past who uses his secret to seduce. It borrows elements from The Dead Zone, allowing a psychic friend with the magic touch to see into the future of whomever he comes in contact with. And then there is the X-Files touch (King penned an episode during the show’s fifth season): Bogeymen, sporting wide-brimmed fedoras and overcoats that flap behind them like Gothic capes, lurk in the smoky shadows; they’re the “low men,” government agents, perhaps, cruising around in flash cars and posting cryptic fliers on telephone poles. The whole thing adds up to a moviegoing experience so familiar as to blunt its moments of shock and dull its flashes of suspense. You’ve experienced Hearts in Atlantis’ thrills and emotions before; you know how to respond before the movie tells you.
And yet Hearts in Atlantis, based on two stories lifted from King’s same-titled 1999 best-seller, is as stirring as it is slight, as effective as it is familiar. It is like a great cover version of a song you once hated, a hackneyed ballad made somehow moving in the right hands (say, Britney Spears’ cloying, slick “…Baby One More Time” stripped down and turned inside out by Travis). Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, and Mika Boorem transcend William Goldman’s adaptation of King’s work. Their performances give depth and meaning to archetypes; their subtleties soften Scott Hicks’ bat-to-the-head direction. Without them, the film would seem hollow and manipulative, a tearjerker that all but flashes a red light cueing the audience to well up. But they beckon us nonetheless, with melancholy eyes and heartrending smiles.
Hopkins plays Ted Brautigan, the mystery man who appears at the doorstep of Liz Garfield (Davis) and her eleven-year-old son Bobby (Yelchin), through whose eyes Hicks (Shine) and Goldman (who adapted Misery) tell their tale. (The film begins in the present day, when a grown-up Bobby, a published photographer played by David Morse, receives by FedEx a worn-out baseball mitt and the notice an old friend has died; we then flash back some four decades, to small-town Connecticut in 1960.) Bearing his belongings in paper bags and mismatched suitcases, Ted has come to rent the attic room Liz has been leasing since the death of her husband five years earlier. Liz is suspicious of Ted, who offers no insight to his past other than that he’s “only from a place not as nice” and that he once “worked up north [at] various places.” Liz worries that Ted is there to seduce her bright but lonely son, but her fears are misplaced. She’s too absorbed in her own career, as a would-be real-estate agent, to pay much attention to Bobby. Liz spends a small fortune on a closet full of movie-star gowns but refuses to buy her son a bicycle he’s pined after for years.
Ted, a man obsessed with the all-too-quick passage of time, quickly becomes the paternal figure Bobby craves, but theirs is less a father-son relationship than one of mutual protection. Ted pays Bobby a buck a week not just to read him the newspaper, but to keep an eye out for the low men, “fellows who are ruthless and will stop at nothing to get what they want.” In return, Ted will offer Bobby profound insight into his future; he is a man blessed, or cursed, with the gift of prescience. He knows when the boy is in love — with his best friend Carol Gerber, played with beatific grace by Along Came a Spider‘s Boorem — and when they are all in danger.
But Hearts in Atlantis is less a thriller than a golden-hued flashback to sugar-coated, haze-drenched yesterdays. The middle-aged Bobby is recalling, through both the photographer’s literal lens and the figurative prism of memory, the last magical summer of his childhood. The film is as much about the power of a boy’s first kiss and first love as it is about the danger that follows Ted like his own thick shadow. Sitting on the front porch of the Garfield home, Ted reminds Bobby, Carol and their friend Sully (Will Rothhaar) of the fleeting nature of childhood: “Sometimes when you’re young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you’re living in someplace magical, like Atlantis…then we grow up, and our hearts break in two.” Hopkins delivers the lines softly, with a longing, weary grin; he has seen the grim future and experienced a gloomy past.
Ultimately, Hearts in Atlantis is a domestic drama about everyday dangers; Liz Garfield is the real source of danger in Bobby’s life — the absentee mother whose good intentions lead to mistrust and betrayal. Her lies, meant to protect her son, only damage him and their relationship; she loves no one more than herself. And more terrifying than the bogeymen are the bullies who keep threatening Liz (the “Gerber baby,” go their taunts) and Bobby. These fresh-faced toughs, wielding tiny fists and a baseball bat, provide more horror than the men (are they real? imagined?) lurking in sewers and alleys.
The trailers for the film would have you believe Hearts in Atlantis is a sci-fi actioner; it tries to scare you into seeing it. But its spirit is more pure than that. Anton Yelchin, our stand-in, is merely a kid coming of age, fighting through his fears, and he’s too strong to be undone by low men or little boys. We know he will grow up to become a melancholy adult — Morse, in his few scenes, plays Bobby as a man who left the best part of himself in 1960 — but not because he did anything wrong. Behind his wide eyes is a sharp mind and a big heart, and Yelchin plays Bobby perfectly — as a child who knows he stands at the precipice of adulthood — and does so without any fear. The rest of us should be so fortunate.