I know, I know. That title. It's a terrible title for what is probably the best American film of the year so far. It sounds like more Southern comfort from the pen of Nicholas Sparks, and it is about young love and old love in the bayou country. But it should not be confused with Sparks' garbage The Last Song, also opening this week. A hopeful answer to post-Katrina despair, The Yellow Handkerchief may well make you cry for joy.

The setup is the classic 1970s road trip. A silvering William Hurt plays Brett. He is released from prison in Louisiana and grasps a cold beer with desperate relief. He hitches a ride down south with a couple of bright-eyed kids, who are none the wiser. Kristen Stewart of the Twilight movies is Martine, a 15-year-old runaway frustrated by wimpy boys. Her latest wimp is Eddie Redmayne's Gordy, freckly and obsessed with himself. To every girl he sees, he boasts about his Native American upbringing. As the towering Brett and nubile Martine climb into Gordy's convertible, we hope for drama but fear the worst. The older man tells the girl, "You can't always trust what you see." And that lack of trust is precisely what screenwriter Erin Dignam explores.

The movie is not about bad people exploiting good people, but about good people provoking each other's emotional problems, and working through them. As the characters take refuge in a single motel room, director Udayan Prasad frames their dynamic with wonderful simplicity. Martine is infatuated with the aging Brett, while Gordy fears him: he's a substitute father. But Brett's mind is elsewhere, tormented by memories of a woman he once loved, played by Maria Bello. These brief flashbacks are warm and sexual, and leave Brett feeling hopelessly alone. Eventually, he will have to explain himself.

The actor who plays him needs little explanation. William Hurt looks exhausted by romantic yearning and wounded pride. Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne convey the same kind of loneliness, and watching that loneliness lift is the best kind of therapy.

I was surprised to learn The Yellow Handkerchief is based on the same story that inspired the yellow ribbon brandished today by Gulf War supporters and the Suicide Prevention Program. There was also that awful song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." It's like the movie was begging to end up preachy or sentimental. Thanks to human feeling, it ended up great.


The Yellow Handkerchief

is rated PG-13 and opens Friday at Fox Tower.