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The cynic may notice only how Hearts in Atlantis plays like a Stephen King best-of compilation. 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. It borrows elements from The Dead Zone, allowing a psychic friend to see into the future of whomever he comes in contact with. And then there's the X-Files touch (King penned an episode during the show's fifth season): Bogeymen, sporting wide-brimmed fedoras and overcoats that flap like Gothic capes, lurk in the smoky shadows; they're the "low men," government agents, perhaps, cruising around in flash cars and posting cryptic flyers 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's 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's like a great cover version of a song you once hated, a hackneyed ballad made somehow moving in the right hands. 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's 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 11-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.) 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 she's too absorbed in her own career, as a would-be real estate agent, to pay much attention to Bobby.
Ted, a man obsessed with the all-too-rapid 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. In return, Ted offers 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 Boorem -- and when they are all in danger.
But Hearts in Atlantis is less a thriller than a golden-hued flashback to sugarcoated 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."
Ultimately, Hearts in Atlantis is a domestic drama about everyday dangers; Carol 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. And more terrifying than the bogeymen are the bullies who keep threatening Carol 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 purer than that. Yelchin, our stand-in, is merely a kid fighting through his youthful 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, 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.
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