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Drowned world

Mock melancholy almost sinks Hearts in Atlantis


Laced with elements of the blue-collar gothic that has characterized other Stephen King works on screen, from Dolores Claiborne to Misery, Hearts in Atlantis is an often unsettling portrait of the dawning realization of some economically strapped kids that their glory days are numbered.

Adapted from King's story, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," and directed by Scott Hicks (Shine), Atlantis is a melancholy, bruised rendition of the potent summer of 1960, when Bobby Garfield's (Anton Yelchin) innocence left him.

The story is told in flashback, as successful grown-up photographer Bobby (The Green Mile's David Morse), well-off enough to send his kids on skiing vacations where each sports their own cell phone, reflects on his less-than-privileged past. Triggered by the death of childhood friend Sully, Bobby makes a pilgrimage to his pre-adolescent stomping ground in Harwich, Conn., now as desolate, abandoned and cobwebbed as granny's attic.

Bobby flashes back to that golden-hued summer in 1960 when he was 11 and a mysterious man with a fancified vocabulary and unusual habits moved into the apartment above Bobby and his widowed mother, Liz (Hope Davis). Much to the suspicious Liz's dismay, Ted (Anthony Hopkins) takes the "kiddo" under his wing, instructing Bobby to watch out for signs of "low men," on Ted's trail.

The "low men" in Hearts are a kind of all-purpose shorthand for a range of very bad things: encroaching adulthood for one thing, but also an unseen power structure of the powerful versus the powerless that is just beginning to reveal itself to Bobby. As the veil of innocence is lifted from his eyes, Bobby now grasps a connection between the men in flashy cars (who are chasing Ted for his psychic mind-reading abilities), and the pudgy, leering bossman who whisks Bobby's mother away to a "conference" in a distant city, with nefarious results. The "low men" Ted warns Bobby about are more intimately connected to Bobby's schoolboy world too, in the form of a bullying rich kid who beats up childhood friends Sully (Will Rothhaar) and Carol (Mika Boorem) any chance he gets.

Hopkins is a substitute father who helps ease Bobby's transition into adulthood, but more interestingly, he is King's adult-self instructing his kid self on the hard road that lies ahead. Ted is a narrator of sorts, who knows and sees all, but is powerless to act. Though audiences undoubtedly prefer the creamy dreams of youth offered up in E.T. or Big, Hearts serves a more bracing, disturbing vision of that horrible divide that separates what Ted calls the "magical" place of childhood from adult reality. Finding an audience willing to swallow that bitter pill will certainly be Hearts' biggest challenge.

Castle Rock Entertainment, a company named after the setting of Stand By Me, has grown adept at bringing the best-selling writer's stories to the screen, with such films as The Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne. Scripted by William Goldman -- who penned the screenplay of Misery and the forthcoming Dreamcatcher -- Hearts is tailored to satisfy the novelist's loyal readership and strike some of the same chords (the melancholy flash-back structure, for example) that have made previous Castle Rock productions so popular.

What keeps Hearts from delivering the emotional punch it so often seems to promise is the film's lead, the ever-adorable but at-times unconvincing Anton Yelchin as young Bobby. Yelchin gives the waterworks when required, tosses his curly mop of inky urchin hair, but his moves are distractingly practiced and as au naturel as a Chihuahua balancing on his hind legs for a doggy treat. You want to feel along with this plucky kid as he wards off the neighborhood bullies, steals his first kiss from the angelic Carol and lusts after a Schwinn bicycle, but it's hard to shake the aura still clinging to Yelchin of eager stage mothers, cereal commercials and other signs of a precocious underage talent.

Such manufactured boyish innocence detracts from an often moving film's more genuine elements, like the suffocating sense of doom that builds over the course of the drama, in which the children and their parents' economic woes make them victims and patsies in the world's three-card monte. In a particularly gripping moment, far more scary and heart-quickening than the denouement where Ted runs from the low men, is the line delivered by Bobby as he watches his clueless, shallow mother (played with a good measure of vulnerability by Davis) get into a car with her sinister, frat-boy employers and whispers, "I'm worried for my Mom."

King and Hicks worry about all the little people in Hearts -- the sad, beautiful little girls and fatherless boys who will have to one day wake up from their childhood and contemplate their lowly status in the world.

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