With his latest offering, "Finding Forrester", director Gus Van Sant redeems himself for his completely unnecessary color photocopy of "Psycho" from 1998. "Finding Forrester", which details the bond that develops between two writers, an aged Pulitzer Prize-winner and a teenage boy from the Bronx, shares many similarities with Van Sant's mainstream calling card from 1997, "Good Will Hunting". With an elderly mentor who has lost faith in both himself and the world, a pupil who prefers to hide than use his boundless unrealized potential, and a symbiotic relationship in which both student and teacher learn life lessons through their shared experience, some have nicknamed the film "Good Will Forrester". Despite the overt similarities, "Finding Forrester" is still an absorbing and inspirational drama, thanks to its well-written script and potent performances. In fact, "Finding Forrester" just might give "Gladiator", "Erin Brockovich", "Requiem for a Dream", and "Traffic" some strong competition for the title of 'Best Film of 2000'.
Bronx high school student Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown, in his feature film debut) is a bit of an enigma. His grades are mediocre, but a recent standardized test demonstrates that he is well beyond the abilities of his peers, making him an easy shoo-in for top-notch colleges. But instead of scholarly pursuits, he prefers to devote his efforts in two areas, basketball and writing. As a gifted basketball player, he earns the acceptance and respect of his peers on the court, who otherwise discourage any public displays of advanced mental aptitude. In his notebooks, which he has never shown anyone, Jamal writes for himself, jotting down thoughts and short pieces whenever he gets a chance.
Jamal's life takes an unexpected turn when he accepts a dare to retrieve a 'souvenir' from the apartment of an elderly recluse whose window faces the school. Though Jamal is able to slip into the apartment, he is caught red-handed and during the panicked escape, he leaves behind his schoolbag containing his journals. A few days later, Jamal has his schoolbag returned to him, but he finds that the tenant has not only read his journals, but has written feedback on the pages. It seems that the recluse is none other than once-celebrated author William Forrester (Sean Connery of "Entrapment"), who wrote his 'Great Twentieth Century Novel' "Avalon Landing", and was never heard from again for five decades.
Pretty soon, Jamal is making regular trips to Forrester's apartment to seek help in developing his writing skills. And so begins an unlikely relationship between the two passionate writers, where Jamal will receive instruction from the Pulitzer Prize-winner, so long as he does not reveal Forrester's identity, ask any 'personal questions', or ask 'why there was only one book'.
Meanwhile, Jamal's test scores have caught the attention of several prestigious schools, and he is offered a full scholarship to finish high school at Mailor-Callow, a top-tier prep school. Unfortunately, Jamal finds the adjustment difficult, as it seems that nobody wants him there. The Mailor-Callow basketball team seems to have some hostility towards the new superstar athlete in their midst, while Robert Crawford (F. Murray Abraham of "Star Trek: Insurrection"), Jamal's English professor, has serious doubts about the academic abilities of his newest student, thinking Jamal to be another slacker on an athletic scholarship. Fortunately, Jamal finds one ally in his new surroundings, a kind and comely fellow student named Claire (Anna Paquin of "The X-Men"), who also happens to be the daughter of the head of the school's board of directors.
The relationship between Jamal and Forrester is the centerpiece of the film, and the shared learning they experience in each other's company is what drives the emotional beats of the story. On the one hand, Jamal is an extremely intelligent boy who needs direction and focus, which Forrester provides by helping Jamal realize his true potential. On the other hand, Forrester is a man who has long given up on the world and his ability to write, preferring to live out his days within the confines of his apartment. Through his relationship with Jamal, Forrester is able to rediscover his passion for the written word, and the simple pleasures of the outside world that he has denied himself for so long.
Not surprisingly, the most engaging aspects of "Finding Forrester" are the interactions between these two protagonists. Together, as their characters navigate the art and craft of the creative process, Rob Brown and Sean Connery share an uncommon rapport of clashing styles: Brown's earnest and low-key style versus Connery's temperamental and cynical manner. Watching these two actors share a scene, newcomer and veteran, is captivating, as are the words that seem to flow freely from the script by Mike Rich, who actually wrote the script while he was a morning DJ at a Portland, OR radio station.
F. Murray Abraham is in top form as the film's antagonist, a presumptuous professor who makes it no secret that he wants to see Jamal fail, and he is easily forgiven for the often-dubious roles he has taken in recent years. Anna Paquin's presence is also welcome, though it is disappointing to see how criminally-underused she is in this film, relegated to the obligatory 'supportive girlfriend' role, without any actual impact on the drama-- contrast this to the pivotal role that Minnie Driver played in "Good Will Hunting". Finally, rapper Busta Rhymes ("Shaft") does a decent turn as Jamal's older brother who has his own reasons to see Jamal succeed.
I would not be exaggerating if I claimed that "Finding Forrester" is one of the top films of the year, if not the best. Over the years, director Gus Van Sant has been pursuing more 'mainstream' material to work with, which started with "Good Will Hunting" in 1997. If "Finding Forrester" is any indication of the trajectory of Van Sant's career, then it is comforting to know that the director who found his claim to fame in quirky independent features (such as "Drugstore Cowboy") will continue to make films that not only nourish the head, but also the heart.