The “Twilight” series has suddenly changed Kristen Stewart from Minor Teen Actress (“The Panic Room,” “The Messengers”) to Major Teen Star. So I suppose one good byproduct of Stephenie Meyer’s I-loved-a-vampire epic is the belated release of “The Yellow Handkerchief,” a sensitive, nicely made character drama that was shot in 2007, prior to the first “Twilight” film.
Stewart plays Martine, a 15-year-old Louisiana girl, who is itching to grow up and get away from her family. One day, Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), an odd boy a few years older, spots her in a diner and tries to pick her up by inviting her for a ride; she resists until Brett (William Hurt), a similarly odd adult a few decades older, agrees to come along. She’s clearly more romantically interested in the geezer, but he seems to be wise enough not to go for it.
His wisdom has been hard-won: Brett is fresh out of prison after serving a six-year sentence for manslaughter. Already taciturn by nature, Brett discreetly doesn’t tell the kids his background at first. Plus, he’s too distracted by his own issues, mostly whether to try to pick up the pieces of his old life or start fresh.
Thanks to one road misfortune after another, this afternoon outing stretches into several days, during which bits of history are exchanged, bonding inevitably occurs, and our perspective on all three characters shifts.
This familiar dramatic contrivance – “Alienated strangers who seem to have nothing in common are forced together on a journey and become a sort of ersatz family” – has been the basis of scores of films, from “The Wizard of Oz” to the 2008 Iraq veteran drama “The Lucky Ones.” It’s no wonder it crops up so often: The journey provides structure, and the forced intimacy provides concentrated character development. On top of that, anyone who’s spent time on the road has experienced some iteration of it.
As things progress, director Udayan Prasad and screenwriter Erin Dignam open up the story both geographically and temporally with increasingly substantial flashbacks to fill in the details of Brett’s relationship with his estranged ex-wife (Maria Bello). This focus shortchanges the younger characters a bit (though, to be fair, they don’t have as much history to reveal).
Hurt’s best performances in the last decade have been in over-the-top roles (“A History of Violence,” “Mr. Brooks”); here he’s acting at the other end of the spectrum.
He conveys his character’s feelings with almost no changes in facial expression; his eyes do most of the talking.
Bizarrely, the movie’s final shtick (from which its title derives) seems inspired by the lyrics of Tony Orlando’s excruciating 1970s hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” It works (sort of), but these scenes feel as if they’ve wandered in from a different film. Still, for most of “The Yellow Handkerchief,” the execution is solid enough to make the trip worthwhile. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for sexual content, some violence, language, and thematic elements.)