Finding Forrester (United States, 2000)
With next year's Oscar nominations set squarely in its sights, Finding Forrester arrives in theaters at the right time of the year (December) with the right kind of star power (Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin) and the sort of feel-good story that audiences and Academy members appreciate. For director Gus Van Sant, this is the second time he has dipped into the well of inspirational storytelling; Finding Forrester displays numerous similarities to Good Will Hunting. And, even though the film's overall trajectory is formulaic, Van Sant does a good job of holding our attention for the two-plus hour running length.
Newcomer Rob Brown plays Jamal Wallace, a Bronx high schooler whose stunning achievement test scores and standout performance on the basketball court earn him the notice of officials at the exclusive Mailor-Callow Prep School, where he is offered a full scholarship as a junior. Jamal's mother (April Grace) and brother (Busta Rhymes) are thrilled by the offer, and, realizing that going to Mailor will allow him to advance his prospects, Jamal agrees to attend. Although his streetwise background makes him a social outsider amidst a sea of rich, pampered kids, Jamal's performance on the court and in the classroom earns him the respect of many of his teachers and peers, including Claire (Anna Paquin), the pretty daughter of the head of Mailor's board of directors.
Meanwhile, as a result of a dare, Jamal inadvertently discovers the whereabouts of the reclusive author William Forrester (Sean Connery), a former Pulitzer Prize winner who disappeared from the public eye after writing "the Great 20th Century Novel", Avalon Landing. Forrester owns an apartment overlooking the blacktop where Jamal and his friends play pickup games, and, one day, after making a brazen statement, the young man is forced to back up his words by sneaking into Forrester's apartment to steal something. He is caught in the act and accidentally leaves behind his backpack, which contains his journals. Forrester writes comments in the notebooks (the most frequent of which seems to be "constipated writing"), and returns the backpack. Thus begins a peculiar mentor/student relationship, with Jamal agreeing not to reveal Forrester's whereabouts in return for Forrester's instruction in the craft of writing. There is one condition, however: Forrester tells Jamal that he can ask "no questions about me, my family, or why there was only one book."
Like The Wonder Boys, Finding Forrester is about the interaction between a once-lauded writer and an aspiring pupil. However, there was more complexity in the Michael Douglas/Tobey Maguire relationship than there is in the one here between Connery and Brown. In addition, The Wonder Boys was more interested in genuinely exploring the creative process than Finding Forrester is. In this film, the only lessons we get are those that can be fit into a sound byte. ("Write the first draft with your heart. Re-write with your head. The key to writing is to write, not think.")
At the core of Finding Forrester is a familiar "buddy story" - about how a brilliant, outcast youngster simultaneously learns from and teaches life lessons to a weary old-timer. Forrester tutors Jamal about how to be an author; Jamal encourages Forrester to shake off his fear of the outside world. It is a time-honored formula that, when handled properly (as in Scent of a Woman, for which Al Pacino won an Oscar), can be effective and affecting. For the most part, Van Sant and his actors hit the right notes throughout Finding Forrester, making the experience of watching the film a pleasant one. The movie doesn't make any deep or profound statements, but its unhurried exploration of the interaction between the two leads is worth spending a couple hours in a movie theater.
As Jamal, Rob Brown displays a natural, unforced charisma. There isn't a hint of artifice in his performance, and it's easy to understand why the filmmakers chose him instead of a better established actor. For his part, the eternally watchable Connery doesn't test the limits of his acting ability to play the curmudgeonly Forrester (the portrayal isn't a mail-in, but it also isn't much of a challenge). This is a case when an actor's reputation works in the character's favor. As written, Forrester is an irascible, unpleasant fellow, but audiences are so used to liking Connery that it's impossible to accept that there isn't a heart of gold hidden beneath the aging author's thick skin.
Finding Forrester boasts a credible supporting cast. Anna Paquin is wonderful, although underused, as Claire, who becomes a possible love interest for Jamal. Given the character's potential and the degree to which Paquin grasps her psyche (watch her body language and look for the minute changes in facial expression), it's a shame that Claire wasn't given the opportunity for greater development. F. Murray Abraham brings his distinguished personality to the role of Finding Forrester's villain - Robert Crawford, an arrogant literature professor who believes that Jamal's writings are too good to be his own work. Crawford's crusade against Jamal leads to the climactic (albeit surprisingly low-key) speech-and-applause scene. (Its inclusion shouldn't surprise anyone - least of all those who have experience with this sort of film.)
With Finding Forrester, Van Sant appears to have put an exclamation mark on his intention to move into mainstream filmmaking, a statement he first made when he took the helm of Good Will Hunting. For the director of movies like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Finding Forrester represents an opportunity not only to work with a modern-day cinematic icon but a chance to increase his clout in Hollywood. Viewers unaware of Van Sant's history will not be clued into it by anything found on-screen in this movie. Finding Forrester is well-made but conventional, and, depending on your mood, that represents either its greatest strength or its most telling weakness.
Finding Forrester (United States, 2000)
Cast: Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin, April Grace, Busta Rhymes
Screenplay: Mike Rich
Cinematography: Harris Savides
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures