And yet Hearts in Atlantis, based on two stories lifted from the eponymous 1999 best-seller by King, is as stirring as it is slight, as effective as it is familiar. Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis and Mika Boorem transcend William Goldman's adaptation of King's work. Their performances give depth and meaning to archetypes; their subtleties soften Scott Hicks' bat-to-the-head direction. Without them, the film would seem hollow and manipulative, a tearjerker that all but flashes a red light cueing the audience to well up.
Hopkins plays Ted Brautigan, the mystery man who appears at the doorstep of Liz Garfield (Davis) and her eleven-year-old son Bobby (Yelchin), through whose eyes Hicks (Shine) and Goldman (who adapted King's Misery) tell their tale. Bearing his belongings in paper bags and mismatched suitcases, Ted has come to rent the attic room Liz has been leasing since the death of her husband five years earlier. Liz worries that Ted is there to seduce her bright but lonely son, but her fears are misplaced. She's too absorbed in her own career as a would-be real-estate agent to pay much attention to Bobby. Liz spends a small fortune on a closet full of movie-star gowns but refuses to buy her son the bicycle he's pined after for years.
Ted, a man obsessed with the passage of time, quickly becomes the paternal figure Bobby craves, but theirs is less a father-son relationship than one of mutual protection. Ted pays Bobby a buck a week not just to read him the newspaper, but to keep an eye out for the "low men": "fellows who are ruthless and will stop at nothing to get what they want." In return, Ted will offer Bobby profound insight into his future; he is a man blessed, or cursed, with the gift of prescience. He knows when the boy is in love -- with his best friend Carol Gerber, played with beatific grace by Along Came a Spider's Boorem -- and when they are all in danger.
But Hearts in Atlantis is less a thriller than a golden-hued flashback to hazy, sugar-coated yesterdays. The film is as much about the power of a boy's first kiss and first love as it is about the danger that follows Ted like his own thick shadow. Sitting on the front porch of the Garfield home, Ted reminds Bobby, Carol and their friend Sully (Will Rothhaar) of the fleeting nature of childhood: "Sometimes when you're young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you're living in someplace magical, like Atlantis.... Then we grow up, and our hearts break in two." Hopkins delivers the lines softly, with a longing, weary grin; he has seen the grim future and experienced a gloomy past.
The trailers for the film would have you believe Hearts in Atlantis is a sci-fi actioner; it tries to scare you into seeing it. But its spirit is more pure than that. Anton Yelchin, our stand-in, is merely a kid coming of age, fighting through his fears, and he's too strong to be undone by low men or little boys. We know he will grow up to become a melancholy adult -- but not because he did anything wrong. Behind his wide eyes is a sharp mind and a big heart, and Yelchin plays Bobby perfectly -- as a child who knows he stands at the precipice of adulthood -- and does so without any fear. The rest of us should be so fortunate.