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MOVIE REVIEW

The Yellow Handkerchief

An old road-trip tale takes a new turn

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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“The Yellow Handkerchief’’ takes a sentimental urban legend that has been floating around for the better part of four decades — to the point of serving as inspiration for one of the treacliest Number One hits of the early 1970s — and fashions from it a small, achingly emotive drama. This isn’t quite making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s close: a trim, functional handbag drawn from a pile of double-knit remnants.

The performances are what put it over — that and the observant camera of director Udayan Prasad (“My Son the Fanatic’’). The first we see of Martine (Kristen Stewart), filmed silently through the window of a convenience store in the Deep South, tells us everything we need to know about her: A rawboned teenager in love with the wrong guy (who’s hot for the wrong girl), she’s ready to do something stupid just to get noticed.

That includes hitching a ride with a studiously eccentric young man named Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), whose convertible is as battered as his bravado. As an afterthought, the two give a lift to Brett (William Hurt), a brooding loner whom the audience has just seen getting out of prison. At this point, “The Yellow Handkerchief’’ seems poised to go any which way: north, south, into suspense or romance. The rhythms of backwoods Louisiana infect the narrative, though, slowing it down until we see the spaces between the characters, the wounds within them, and where they might possibly heal.

In shards of images that coalesce into sustained flashbacks, we learn that Brett was a journeyman dockworker whose part-time labor for marina owner May (Maria Bello) slowly blossomed into something more permanent. Hurt at first seems like the wrong man for the part; we’re used to halting intellectual aggression from this actor. Yet he makes Brett a movingly bleak figure — a rough, inarticulate man struggling to express a fractured inner nobility.

Redmayne, so opaque as Julianne Moore’s son in “Savage Grace,’’ takes the stock figure of a naive, messed-up kid and freights it with increasing gravitas — Gordy grows up before our eyes, to his and our surprise. Even Stewart, an untutored colt of an actress who can toggle between natural grace and utter haplessness, finds her groove here. Unlike the “Twilight’’ movies, “The Yellow Handkerchief’’ gives her time to actually act alongside other people (as opposed to moussed vampires and hunky werewolves).

The movie’s lineage is interestingly baroque. The script by Erin Dignam is an adaptation of a 1977 Japanese film, “Shiawase no Hiroii Hankachi,’’ which itself was inspired by a well-known 1971 column by New York Post writer Pete Hamill. That same column served as the source for a 1972 TV movie and the 1973 pop hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree,’’ by Tony Orlando and Dawn. The original story has roots in oral tradition; it’s a quintessentially American tale that speaks of loss and second chances.

It also has a built-in maudlin streak that has helped it last and that Prasad nicely downplays by rooting the movie in the specifics of time and place. Helping immeasurably are the dappled visuals captured by veteran cinematographer Chris Menges (“The Mission’’), as well as watchful performances by the older actors that effectively counterpoint the gauche intensity of the kids. “The Yellow Handkerchief’’ is no one’s idea of a groundbreaking cinematic experience, but it manages to tell an old, old tale in a way that makes us grateful to hear it all over again.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF

Directed by: Udayan Prasad

Written by: Erin Dignam, based on a story by Pete Hamill

Starring: William Hurt, Maria Bello, Kristen Stewart, Eddie Redmayne

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 102 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sexual content, some violence, language and thematic elements)

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