Screenplay : Mike Rich
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Sean Connery (William Forrester), Robert Brown (Jamal Wallace), F. Murray Abraham (Prof. Henry Crawford), Anna Paquin (Claire Spence), Busta Rhymes (Terrell), April Grace (Ms. Joyce), Michael Pitt (Coleridge), Michael Nouri (Dr. Spence), Richard Easton (Matthews)
Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester opens in avant-garde fashion, with a quick glimpse of the clapboard snapping as someone off-screen yells "Action," and the opening credits rolls over forlorn images of inner-city New York while a lone African-American youth raps acappella.
However, it turns out that Finding Forrester was not directed by the edgy independent auteur behind Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991); rather, it was directed by the slick, mainstream filmmaker who made Good Will Hunting (1997). As soon as the opening credits are over, the film settles down into an entertaining, if utterly predictable narrative flow about a gifted black teenager named Jamal (Robert Brown) who befriends a reclusive writer named William Forrester (Sean Connery).
Forrester is no ordinary writer, of course. Instead, he is a mythical legend in the hallowed halls of literary greatness, a Scottish-American genius who penned The Great American Novel, in this case a slim volume titled Avalon Landing. Then, for reasons unknown, he simply disappeared. Jamal discovers Forrester has been living in a dusty, book-filled apartment on the top floor of a tenement building deep in the Bronx for the last 30 years, never venturing outside or having any human contact except with a man who delivers his groceries and a fresh pair of socks each week.
When Jamal and Forrester first become friends, Jamal has no idea who Forrester is (he lives under a pseudonym). All Jamal knows is he is a reclusive man who understands how to write and can help Jamal with his own efforts. He becomes, in effect, Jamal's mentor in writing. Although Jamal is also a gifted athlete, with great prowess in basketball, his true interests are intellectual. An early shot of his bedroom shows a stack of books that are often reserved only for students in graduate school, and his mother professes to a school counselor that he spends all his time writing in his notebooks and reading books, some of which she has never heard.
Jamal eventually finds out who Forrester is after he is taken out of his public high school, where he has been making Cs in order not to stand out among his peers, and placed in an expensive, private prep school in Manhattan. There, he becomes friend with a girl named Claire Spence (Anna Paquin) and almost immediately makes enemies with a tenured literary professor, Henry Crawford (F. Murray Abraham), who is so odious in his professional pompousness and casual racism as to be utterly unredeemable.
But, that is mostly how Finding Forrester plays--in broad stokes that are not meant to challenge, but rather to reassure that, despite all its troubles, all will be right in the world eventually. First-time screenwriter Mike Rich aims deep into feel-good territory, and Van Sant brings it all home with the same light touch that made Good Will Hunting, which was also about a mentor relationship, such a success.
The film Finding Forrester most resembles, though, is Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman, in which Chris O'Donnell played Charlie Simms, a private-school outsider who was left in charge of the aging, blind, retired Lt. Col. Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino. Although William Forrester is by no means suicidal like Slade, by locking himself in an apartment and refusing contact with the rest of the world for so many decades, he has already enacted a kind of suicide that is both figurative and literal.
And, like Charlie, Jamal is an outsider in his school because of his socioeconomic status (not to mention the color of his skin) who finds himself in a predicament in which he is in trouble with the school officials, and his aging friend is the only person in a position to save him. The climax of Finding Forrester, which sets up a situation in which only Forrester can prove Jamal's innocence of an accusation of plagiarism, is completely contrived, yet also somehow gratifying. Much like Lt. Col. Slade's big speech at the end of Scent of a Woman that gets Charlie off the hook, so does Forrester's sudden emergence into public life.
Sean Connery, who also coproduced the film, has a magnificent turn as William Forrester. His performance is, at various turns, bitter, funny, and deeply affecting. He maintains just enough mystery to keep Forrester's character interesting throughout, but he is also open enough to make us realize that Forrester gains just as much, if not more, from his relationship with Jamal than Jamal gains from him. They become each other's saviors, and while hardly original, it is this dualism within their relationship that keeps it interesting.
However, the real find here is Robert Brown, a high school sophomore who answered an opening casting call and found himself in the lead role as Jamal. Brown is an untrained actor of great potential. He has a tough resilience and natural tenderness that feels utterly unaffected. It is almost as if he isn't acting. He exudes Jamal's intelligence without making him a bookworm, and he is adept at portraying how Jamal's intellectual prowess can be as much a burden as it is a gift.
In the end, Finding Forrester is more than content to spin its good-natured story and deal with sensitive topics in a way that threatens no one, thus reassuring its audience that, despite pain and prejudice in the world, not everything is what it seems and the good will win in the end. Young African-American males living in the ghetto can find a way out. Interracial love can overcome the prejudice of rich white fathers. Basketball players can be voracious readers and deep thinkers who know the entire history of the BMW and can recite literature by heart. Reclusive old men can be brought out into the light and given a second chance in life. And cruel, pompous literary professors will always, always, be exposed and justly punished through public humiliation.
©2001 James Kendrick