When a package arrives announcing the death of a childhood friend, Robert Garfield returns to the New England home of his youth. The once-vibrant neighborhood has succumbed to time and neglect. He reminisces while strolling through the dilapidated house that, during his last innocent summer there in 1960, was home to him, his widowed mother and Ted Brautigan, the uniquely gifted border who moved in upstairs. From here, the tale is told in flashback from 11-year-old Bobby’s perspective.
Backed by the hits of Chubby Checker, The Platters and Fats Domino, scenes show Bobby’s most carefree days with good friends, including his childhood sweetheart, Carol. Climbing trees. Splashing about at the old swimming hole. Walking along train tracks. It’s magical. But things aren’t so great at home. If Bobby’s mother is to be believed, his no-good father gambled away their savings before dying and leaving them in financial straits. For his 11th birthday, Bobby doesn’t get the bike he wanted. Mom gives him a library card instead. Meanwhile, she’s a clothes horse who always seems to be thinking of own desires ahead of her son’s needs. Desperate for cash, the pair rent out an upstairs room to Ted who, as it turns out, can read people’s minds. "Some think of it as a gift," he tells Bobby, "but to me it has always been a burden." It seems a tenacious group of G-men want to control and exploit his talent in an era of Cold War paranoia. Bobby and Ted form a fast friendship that, while it lasts, provides each with a refreshing view of life.
positive elements: Friends stick up for one another and share each other’s ups and downs. When Harry and his pals pick on Carol, Bobby rises to her defense. Later, when the bully attacks and wounds her, Bobby puts her on his back and carries her to safety. Ted tells of a football player who gutted out a difficult situation, teaching Bobby an important lesson about perseverance in the face of physical exhaustion. A barmaid tells Bobby that his dad was a decent man who never added to the troubles of the world (after years of revisionist history about his dad, Bobby excitedly reminds his mother, "He was generous and he was funny and people liked him"). Liz jumps to conclusions about Ted and appears foolish for her unfair treatment of him. Likewise, her mediocre parenting demonstrates just how easy it is to alienate a preadolescent through selfishness. Upon realizing that she has betrayed her son, Liz asks Bobby for forgiveness.
spiritual content: Some families may object to Ted’s ability to read people’s minds, slip in and out of trance-like states and temporarily transfer his ability to Bobby by embracing him; it’s strange, but not spiritualized.
sexual content: There’s an undercurrent of suspicion on the part of Liz that Ted may have dishonorable intentions toward her son. But he’s no pedophile. If anyone deserves her icy glares, it’s her boss, who tries to take advantage of her while on a business trip (it’s unclear just how successful he is, though he is shown dominating her on a hotel bed, clothed). Harry makes crass comments about the size of Carol’s chest.
violent content: Resident bully Harry Doolin and his toadies grab Bobby and Carol, intending them harm until Ted intervenes. Later, Harry hits Carol with a baseball bat (implied), separating her shoulder. He also confronts Bobby, who disarms Harry and pummels the lout with his own bat until Harry manages to run away. Liz is tossed about on a hotel bed by her boss during what, in discretely cut flashback shots, appears to be a case of acquaintance rape. Believing the worst of Ted’s interactions with the wounded Carol, Liz slaps him several times.
crude or profane language: Just over a dozen profanities, including slang for a girl’s breasts, several exclamatory uses of God and Jesus’ name.
drug and alcohol content: A bar/pool hall serves drinks. Liz drowns her sorrows in a glass of wine. When Liz’s boss gets drunk at an out-of-town seminar, he proceeds to force himself on her. Ted and Liz both smoke cigarettes almost constantly. At one point, Bobby chides his mother for her habit, which inspires Liz to defend herself by quoting the brand’s obviously lame advertising slogan.
other negative elements: References to a writer "prone to flatulence" yield mildly crude exchanges. There are mixed messages about gambling, some suggesting that it’s a sucker’s game (as when Carol’s mom plays three-card Monty), while others indicate that betting big bucks on long shots could be a legitimate way to get rich quick (Ted earns enough to live on for a while by wagering on a prize fight). Ted’s views of childhood are sweet and romantic, but they’re countered by pessimistic ideas about adulthood ("Sometimes when you’re young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you’re living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been ... then we grow up and our hearts break in two"). Sure, idealism fades with maturity, but is growing up necessarily a path to heartbreak? Not if a person’s maturity is given perspective by a relationship with Jesus Christ.
conclusion: If Alfred Hitchcock was correct when he said that "style" is merely self-plagiarism, no one may have a better case against himself than Stephen King. Currently "on trial," Hearts in Atlantis. Exhibit A: Flashback stimulated by an item from the past arriving by mail (The Green Mile). Exhibit B: Story set in the late 1950s or early 1960s told in retrospect through the eyes of an idealistic child on the brink of adulthood (It, Stand By Me). Exhibit C: Kind-hearted character possessing an uncommon ability who is plagued and ultimately undone by said power (The Dead Zone, Carrie, The Green Mile, Firestarter, The Shining, etc.). Exhibit D: Young bullies who get what’s coming to them (Christine, Stand By Me, Sometimes They Come Back, It, etc.).
Yet in spite of its over-reliance on King’s decades-old formula, Hearts in Atlantis still manages to pull heartstrings. We care about these people, even if their futures are foretold and their goals remain ambiguous. Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins gives Ted a lot of depth, warmth and mystery—not an easy combination to pull off. For mature viewers able to work through the film’s intense moments, occasional profanity and obscure talk of psychic powers, there are great messages about friendship, kindness, responsibility to one’s children, respect for elders and the need to keep from prejudging people.
It’s also wonderful to see an 11-year-old boy captivated by the fond reminiscences of a man old enough to be his grandfather, rather than by the latest TV show or video game. Senior citizens possess a wealth of experience, insight and wisdom under-appreciated in modern culture. Intergenerational friendships can be enriching for both young and old, as this film suggests.
For me, there was another unintended benefit: In the wake of terrorist attacks and an uncertain future, I found comfort in the film’s nostalgic snap-shots of mid-twentieth century Americana. A worn-out baseball glove. A kid collecting Coke bottles. Fiery orange maple trees announcing the arrival of autumn. Directed by Scott Hicks (who captured the icy Pacific Northwest masterfully in another period film, Snow Falling on Cedars), the movie temporarily transported me to a safer place, Sputnik notwithstanding.