From Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, a collection of novellas and a short story, comes this adaptation of two of those pieces: "Low Men in Yellow Coats" and "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling." And a gentle, lyrical adaptation it is, albeit one with secretively mysterious overtones and a couple of components that center on less-than-happy circumstances.
Scripted by William Goldman, who worked wonders in adapting King's Misery for the screen, and directed by Scott Hicks, who achieved new nuances of moodiness with Snow Falling on Cedars, the film starts out as a contemporary tale of middle-aged Bobby (David Morse) attending the funeral of a childhood friend. Afterwards, he's stunned to find out that another friend from long ago -- the young girl who made up their tightly knit trio, and whom he had lost contact with -- died some time ago.
This news, combined with a forlorn visit to the now condemned house where he grew up, triggers the film's flashback to 1960. Back to those innocent days when Bobby (Anton Yelchin) was being raised by his widowed mom (Hope Davis), a woman who would rather be dressed in style and out gallivanting with a new man than being stuck with any motherly duties. Bobby's not happy about the distance between him and his mom, and he's practically morose about the fact that she ignores his constant requests for a new bicycle, instead getting him a library card for his birthday.
But times are tight. Dad left nothing but gambling debts in his wake, so there will be no bike; and before long, a man named Ted (Anthony Hopkins) appears at their door in answer to a newspaper ad for a boarder in the upstairs apartment. His arrival marks a new chapter in Bobby's life, for he has never met anyone like this man. Ted seems to know a lot that he couldn't possibly know, like people's names and situations. He smokes too much and drinks his root beers too fast. He keeps quoting from Ben Jonson and Boris Pasternak. Every once in a while, a dreamy, far away comes into his eyes. The sense of mystery that surrounds him, as far as Bobby observes, takes on larger dimensions when he asks Bobby to keep his eyes open for "low men" in the neighborhood, and because of failing eyesight, offers to pay him a dollar a week (how long before he owns that bike?) if he'll read the newspaper to him every day.
Despite marginally concerned mom's early reservations (she doesn't really like anybody but herself), the deal is struck, and Bobby and Ted grow closer (a substitute father?). But nothing is stronger than the bond between Bobby and his pals, Sully (Will Rothhaar) and Carol (Mika Boorem). And their friendship continues to flourish, running through the woods, hanging out, talking about nothing in particular. The only thing, other than being fatherless, that mars Bobby's world is the existence of some slightly older kids, bullies to be exact, who sporadically emerge to torment him and his friends.
But while all of this is what's going on in the film's periphery, a great deal more is going on inside of it. There are some marvelous examples of two actors just talking to each other -- a discussion between Bobby and Ted that touches upon the loss of his father and the career of pro footballer Bronko Nagurski -- shows what can happen when solid writing, directing and acting smoothly merge. And though young Anton Yelchin has only appeared in small parts in a couple of films, he more than ably holds his own with Hopkins who, by the way, gives one of his best and most understated performances here.
And whether understated or not, anyone would be hard pressed to find anything but great performances anywhere in the film. From the leader of the bullies to mom's devious boss, to the background faces that habituate the bars where Ted and Bobby hole up when it looks like there really are some "low men" lurking around town trying to get their hands on Ted, even the small performances shine.
It's in the bars and some of the street scenes that Hicks and his production designer, Barbara C. Ling, latch onto a physical screen weirdness that hasn't been achieved since Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind. But at the same time, Hearts in Atlantis gets into areas of bad relationships, the end of childhood, a dose or two of mystical magic and even a foray into another kind of magic -- that of young love. It's a movie that has a lot of trouble going on in the background, but will have most audiences heading home in a good mood, totally entertained, with perhaps a small tear or two in their eyes.