Present-day America is plagued by fatherless homes in which children grow up without proper male role models.
Recent statistics reveal that both boys and girls in this environment are more apt to experience psychological, academic and moral problems than kids raised in a two-parent household.
Hearts in Atlantis, based on two short works by horror novelist Stephen King, is a coming-of-age story set in 1960 that dramatizes the positive impact a male mentor can make on a young boy in this situation. Australian director Scott Hicks (Shine) and veteran screenwriter William Goodman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) successfully mix two seemingly disparate styles. Their narrative is propelled by subtle manipulations of the conventions of a supernatural thriller. At the same time, they fashion a visual poem filled with nostalgia for the period.
The filmmakers skillfully get us to see the world through the eyes of an 11-year-old, but some parents may consider the treatment of the material too intense and “edgy” for children of that age. Although the subject matter is never exploited to cheap effect, the language and the sexual encounters are sometimes graphic.
Gray-haired photographer Bobby Garfield (David Morse) learns that an old friend has died when he receives a package containing a well-worn baseball glove. After attending the funeral, he reflects upon the loss. The movie flashes back to his “last summer of childhood” in Harwich, Conn., as he narrates the memories from an adult perspective.
The 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) has two pals his own age with whom he does everything — Sully (Will Rothbaar) and Carol (Mika Boorem). We watch them climbing trees together, walking along the railroad tracks and diving into the swimming hole. They always stick up for each other when the going gets rough, and Carol is the girl with whom Bobby innocently shares his first kiss. The filmmakers capture that wonderful pre-adolescent feeling of “best friends forever.”
“Sometimes when you're young, you have moments of such happiness, you're living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been,” the middle-aged Bobby comments. “Then we grow up, and our hearts break in two.”
Although most of the time the youthful Bobby is content, he has one aching void. His father died when he was five, leaving him and his mother, Liz (Hope Davis), with no money. She's forced to work as a secretary in a real-estate office and has little time for him. She blames everything that's gone wrong in their lives on her deceased ex. The boy spends many hours at home watching cartoons and children's serials.
Bobby dreams of getting a Schwinn bicycle for his birthday, but his mother claims to be able to afford only a library card as a gift. Yet she somehow finds the means to keep herself clothed in the finest of new dresses.
The boy is growing up mainly on his own until the mysterious Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) rents the apartment upstairs. The older man has enough years on him to be his grandfather. Claiming to be retired, he arrives with his possessions in shopping bags. Bobby's mother is suspicious.
Ted and the boy immediately bond, and he hires the lad to read the newspaper aloud to him for $1 a week, as his eyesight is failing. These daily sessions give the older man an opportunity to make sage comments that are often filled with references to authors like Charles Dickens.
Bobby is hungry for this kind of insight from a knowledgeable older male. It's more challenging than what he picks up from the boob tube, and the movie shows the boy maturing under Ted's influence.
Accordingly, when Bobby learns some positive things about his dead father that conflict with what his mother has told him, he shares them with Ted, not Liz. The older man makes a connection between himself and Bobby's dad. He's certain that he and the boy's father attended the same football game where the legendary running back, Bronco Nagurski, made a great play. Ted draws a moral from this story which inspires the boy to believe in himself and to do the right thing when later confronted with a problem.
The older man also has a side that's unsettling. He asks Bobby to be on the lookout for “low men” who “cast long shadows.” They supposedly act in a sinister fashion, driving big cars and posting strange notices about lost pets on telephone poles.
At first Bobby believes that Ted's imagining things. But soon he learns that his friend has the psychic ability to read minds which the “low men” wish to use for their own purposes.
While the cosmology behind this plot device isn't orthodox Christian, there's nothing in it that will offend the faithful. Ted says of his paranormal skills: “Some think of it as a gift, but to me it has always been a burden.”
The filmmakers treat these phenomena in an understated fashion, as merely an excuse for another narrative twist. The dramatic focus remains on the beneficial aspects of Ted's friendship with Bobby. The audience roots for this connection to deepen and grows sad at the prospect of its involuntary termination.
We come to understand emotionally the importance to a young boy of a dependable male mentor. It's shown to be essential in the development of his moral sensibility. The movie may even push some into wondering what has gone wrong in our culture that allows us to devalue this kind of relationship.
Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.