The quote is right from the script. Hearts in Atlantis is based on a Stephen King book of the same name which is a series of related stories with a linking theme of the Viet Nam war. The film though, drawn from just one of the stories, has little or nothing to do with the Viet Nam war and, aside from the weak allusion above, the title is appropriate only for the purpose of drawing box office from fans of the book..
It’s the Stephen King formula once again. Take a fairly standard set of characters–a young widow and her son and his friends–and inject a newcomer, a stranger with mysterious powers being followed by unknown pursuers. The newcomer here is Ted Brautigan, played by Anthony Hopkins and Hopkins is the best thing the film has to offer; the guy could read the Manhattan phone book and make it sound dramatic and profound.
But Brautigan’s powers are only marginally mysterious: he’s a psychic, a telepath, able to read people’s minds. Those who touch him become psychic, too. The men chasing him down are never identified, but veteran screenwriter William Goldman (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) telescopes the solution early in the game–there’s an article in the newspaper that the FBI is hunting down psychics who are believed to aid the enemy. And when glimpses of the pursuers are offered, they’re all in suits and ties and fedoras just like the FBI guys wore back then.
The center of the story is eleven year old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) whose Dad is dead and whose mother (Hope Davis) is self-centered, claiming poverty to Bobby when he wants a bike, even as she buys herself a wardrobe of dressy frocks. Not only that, she blames their impecunious state on her late husband and his gambling ways, depriving Bobby of even the memory of a good Dad. When Brautigan rents a room in their house, he and Bobby quickly bond and things (ever so slowly) start to happen.
There are some broad themes running through the film, paralleled between the mother’s experience and that of Bobby and his friends–violence from bullies, lies uncovered. But the characterizations are stock and the film is plot-driven, never getting under the surface or offering fresh insight. It is further weighted down by the performance of young Yelchin (Along Came a Spider) which all too often seems calculated, overacted and cutesy. Hope Davis (Arlington Road, Mumford) is appropriately hateful as the mother, but never manages to convey a deeper side to the character which would temper her faults with sympathy. Aside from Hopkins, the scene-stealer of the film is Mika Boorem (The Patriot, Along Came a Spider) whose smile and natural charm fill up the screen with a quality of spontaneity and genuineness otherwise sorely missing.
Director Scott Hicks (Shine) worked here with the late cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (to whom the film is dedicated) and together they created a lush style with memorable visuals: the sun at dusk glowing on railroad tracks that curve through the woods, the colors and lights of a Ferris wheel at night, a red maple in full leaf, a closeup of sunlight turning the girl’s golden hair to red. (Hicks’ previous film, Snow Falling on Cedars showed a similar eye for exquisitely lit, atmospheric shots.) The story is placed in Connecticut and it was filmed in Virginia, but it fails to evoke any real sense of place; it’s a sort of generic small town America. A soundtrack full of period music is more of a distraction than an enhancement and old cars and wardrobe don’t manage to coalesce into a genuine period feeling either.
Audaciously, Hearts in Atlantis alludes to Village of the Damned, an effectively scary B-movie that came out at the time that Hearts in Atlantis‘ story takes place. Brautigan takes Bobby to see the film and he comments on how scary it gets, just using real people. It’s a goal that Hearts in Atlantis never achieves.