William Hurt and Kristen Stewart, in 'The Yellow Handkerchief'

Dir. Udayan Prasad
(2010, PG-13, 102 min)
★ ★ ★

The Yellow Handkerchief opens with prison inmate Brett Hanson (William Hurt), being released after a six-year stint. Passing through Louisiana, he visits a diner where he enjoys his first beer as a free man and encounters a pair of local teenagers in a drama of their own. Martine (Kristen Stewart) is the unlucky third in a love triangle; the boy says he was drunk and now wants nothing to do with her. In a bid to make him jealous, she hops in a car with Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), an awkward kid who annoys her, and invites Brett along so she doesn’t have to be alone with him. Brett, looking gruff and more than a little menacing, isn’t the kind of stranger you should invite into your car on a whim, but never mind. So begins a road trip where everyone learns lessons about love.

If that last sentence seems a bit flippant, I suppose it is. The film is overly earnest and could use a shot of irony. Brett has secrets from his past — as must any mysterious stranger in a road trip movie — that are revealed in flashbacks as Brett tells his story to his impressionable companions along the way, but his fraught romance with May (Maria Bello), whom he met while fixing her boat, doesn’t have the tragic weight of all its portentous build-up.

Nevertheless, the film won me over. Director Udayan Prasad maintains a tone of sweet understatement and avoids the strain of melodrama, even as the screenplay by Erin Dignam flirts with romantic indulgence. He has the benefit of a strong cast giving easy, natural performances, especially William Hurt, who has a late scene where warmth breaks through his hardened reserve. The romances — both the older couple and the young, budding lovebirds — work because of how Prasad and his cast underplay them. It’s an unassuming film, rough around the edges, but in its subtle sincerity it charms.