Stephen King’s name is synonymous with modern horror and Hearts in Atlantis (2001) does indeed reverberate with suggestions of the dark side. Ultimately, however, it’s a story of the magic and wonder of childhood confronting the lies of the adult world and the predators that bully the weak. It’s closer to Stand By Me than The Stand, and closer still to the Ray Bradbury’s beautiful stories of adolescence.
Bobby-O (Anton Yelchin) is the adolescent son of a worn out young widow (Hope Davis), a working Mom angry at the world and perhaps a little resentful of Bobby’s needs. His world opens up when he befriends their mysterious new upstairs neighbor Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), an odd, threadbare gentleman who laces the unassuming elegance of his speech with references to the classics.
Ted is on the run from the “low men,” he confesses to Bobby, and seems to always know what Bobby and others thinking. The boy takes to this romantic idea of danger and intrigue, if he doesn’t quite believe it, at least at first. Most importantly Bobby takes to Ted’s warmth, his stories, and his accepting friendship: he treats Bobby as a kindred spirit, not a child but an equal.
Yelchin, with his mop of unruly hair and forthright manner, suggests a kid out of the past, an old style Hollywood boy with an adult’s strength of character and resolve. Hope Davis brings out the streak of selfishness and self-pity of Bobby’s hard luck Mom without sinking into fairy tale wickedness: she’s not so much inattentive as simply unhappy and frustrated. And Hopkins loses the hammy theatricality that turns many of his 1990s performances into showboating turns for an understated, serene portrait of Ted, giving a quiet depth to his paternal protectiveness of Bobby.
Director Scott Hicks, working from the best screenplay that Oscar winner William Goldman has penned in ages, captures the right mix of nostalgia and adversity in the tale of Bobby-O’s last innocent summer in 1960. There are indeed mysterious men in anonymous suits shadowing Ted but his odyssey never overwhelms Bobby’s story friendship and first love, local bullies and adult lies.
Inspiring without sinking into sentimentality or cliché, Hearts in Atlantis is a coming of age story that has nothing to do with sexual rites of passage or mystical quests and everything to do with the gaining of wisdom and self-esteem, and the courage to confront the lies. It is intelligent, heartfelt, and genuine, a rare story of childhood for adults.
Mika Boorem, David Morse, and Alan Tudyk costar.
The DVD features commentary by director Scott Hicks and interviews with Hicks and star Anthony Hopkins.