Coming out of a dismal movie summer, the first taste of fall is like manna from heaven—in contrast, that is. Directed by Scott Hicks (Shine), adapted by William Goldman, and starring Anthony Hopkins, Hearts in Atlantis represents the first of the fall Oscar bait, though its late September release suggests its underachieving results. Given the pleasant results, it's probably churlish to point out the film's familiarity and low-wattage impact. Warm performances and well-honed dialogue by two-time Oscar winner Goldman buoy the now run-of-the-mill story-based on a Stephen King novel--a sort of 50s E.T. with an old man instead of an alien.
Anton Yelchin plays Bobby, the lynchpin of a threesome of kids growing up in the 50s. As remembered by the grown-up Bobby (a typically affecting David Morse), the two-boys-and-a-girl group was innocence personified until one special summer changed everything. Besides the first stirrings of sexuality, Bobby befriends Hopkins' mysterious nomad Ted, who settles (temporarily, he stresses) in an upstairs room of Bobby's home. Bobby's widowed mother (Hope Davis) offers little consolation to the lad, using up her hopeful energy on her own fading dreams. So, Bobby drifts closer to his young friends (especially the suddenly apparent female) and Ted, who employs Bobby ostensibly to read to him, but in fact, to watch for the shadowy strangers on his trail.
The mystery behind Ted's trouble involves a supernatural power customary to King, but the story maintains a realistic (if gauzily nostalgic) tone. The low-key story plays itself out inevitably and effectively, and while it doesn't hit the emotional highs of the similarly toned but more effective Stand by Me, the players compel attention. Yelchin and Hopkins have a credible and amusing chemistry, while Davis navigates her difficult character nicely. The complicated psychology of the mother, though largely unplumbed, gives a hint of what's missing here. Bobby's loss of innocence is fairly unsophisticated (with surrogate father guiding his course), and Hopkins' kindly coot, while fun to watch, never deepens into a recognizably real figure.
Hicks' true MVP is the late, great cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (Red), to whom the film is dedicated. Sobocinski's joyful, sunny scenes and melancholy, wistful tableaux tell the whole story in imagery. Though the story is unambitious, the craftsmanship and competence of Hearts in Atlantis mark a heartening fall return to watchable Hollywood films.