After attending the funeral of an old friend, artist Robert Garfield remembers the most important summer of his young life when, aged 11, he fell in love for the first time and had problems with his single parent mother. Then a mysterious old man, Ted Bra
Oh, how Hearts In Atlantis looked like an Oscar banker. After all, it's based on a 'worthy' Stephen King novel (i.e. not a horror tale), and 'worthy' King - let's conveniently ignore the fact that his horror novels are often works of genius - tends to bag Oscar noms, from The Shawshank Redemption to The Green Mile to Stand By Me.
Then there's Tony Hopkins, Scott 'Shine' Hicks and, of course, the old Castle Rock/Stephen King/William Goldman triptych that brought us Misery. Oscars aplenty.
But Hearts won't end up on the inside of a sealed envelope, for while this maudlin mix of hazy nostalgia, the supernatural and rites-of-passage looks good on paper, perhaps that's where it should have stayed.
Adapting two stories - Heavenly Shades Of Night Are Falling and Low Men In Yellow Coats - from King's Vietnam War chronicles, Hicks and Goldman ignore the 'Nam factor completely, accentuating instead a gentle tale of innocence, magic and growing pains.
As befits a film whose main theme is the painful inevitability of ageing, the late cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski bathes the film in a beautiful, autumnal lustre. But looks aren't everything, and despite Hicks' best efforts, this faux-E.T. - mystical stranger stays with single parent family; teaches boy to love; promptly buggers off, pursued by shadowy government agents - never really engages the emotions as it should.
Hopkins is partially to blame, surprisingly. While it seems churlish to criticise one of the world's truly great actors, he sleepwalks his way through, never conjuring sufficient warmth to suggest that Bobby - a fine debut by young Anton Yelchin - would see him as a suitable replacement for Davis' self-absorbed, strident mother. Contrast that with David Morse who, as the older Bobby, contributes a truly touching ten-minute snapshot of a big bear of a man, wracked by grief yet with a touching childlike vulnerability. He's comfortably the best thing in the movie.
But then, Hicks has always been able to elicit good performances and create a distinctive atmosphere. Where he's clearly less comfortable is with Hearts In Atlantis' thriller and paranormal aspects, never once creating a sense of wonder, nor conveying any tension as the net closes around Brautigan.
In fact - and perhaps this proves the old adage that men can't multi-task - by including the thriller plot, Hicks doesn't develop his main theme beyond the level of a low-cal Stand By Me, with which this shares many similarities, from the framing flashback device hinging upon the death of an old friend, to kids on the verge of adulthood. There's even a walk along train tracks, for pity's sake. But when compared with Rob Reiner's classic, this comes off a poor second-best. Where's Frank Darabont when you need him?
Gentle, well-performed, but ultimately uninvolving. As King movies go, though, it's a heck of a lot better than Graveyard Shift, but it won't supplant anyone's memories of Stand By Me.