movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Finding Forrester

Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester follows the pattern established by Good Will Hunting -- so much so that you'll undoubtedly hear critics referring to it as Good Will Forrester. Both films are about exceptionally intelligent young men who hide their intelligence behind a seemingly ordinary exterior. And both young men discover themselves in the presence of mentors who help bring out their best qualities, and in the process the mentors find their own lives enriched. The similarities indicate a more formulaic approach for Van Sant, who throughout most of his career has been an unpredictable director. Films such as Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and To Die For are surprisingly original and witty. With their devotion to marginalized characters, they're definitely not typical mainstream fodder.

In Finding Forrester, Van Sant revises the structure of Good Will Hunting (and possibly slips toward complacency), but the story elements provided by screenwriter Mike Rich are still compelling, even though they're also overly familiar.

First-time actor Rob Brown stars as Jamal Wallace, an enormously talented high school basketball player. His teachers see few signs that he's capable of anything more than average class work (he carries a C average), but his bookshelf at home is filled with classics and he spends much of his time writing stories in his journals. In his world, good grades don't count for much. But good moves to the basket are, quite literally, gold.

On a dare, Jamal sneaks up the fire escape of the apartment building that looks over the neighborhood basketball court. He's supposed to enter the apartment of the neighborhood recluse. No one has ever seen the recluse. His food and supplies are delivered, so he never leaves the confines of his apartment. When Jamal enters the apartment, he becomes startled and runs off, forgetting about his backpack -- which contains his writing journals. The next day as he's walking past the apartment building, Jamal finds his backpack laying on the ground. He sheepishly grabs it and considers himself lucky, but soon afterwards he discovers red marks (e.g., "constipated" and "fantastic") on the journal pages. Intrigued by the idea that someone might challenge him mentally about his writing, he attempts to befriend the recluse and gradually comes to the realization that he's in the presence of a famed, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. William Forrester (Sean Connery) wrote just one novel -- and then disappeared. (Think J.D. Salinger.) Forrester becomes Jamal's mentor, teaching him how to improve his writing -- while also benefiting from the metaphorical blast of fresh air that accompanies Jamal's arrival.

I applaud Van San'ts devotion to intelligence. He's one of the few directors who isn't afraid to give us highly intelligent central characters. Significantly, his characters have difficulty coping with their own intelligence. Jamal, in particular, feels compelled to completely disguise his intelligence, but like Will Hunting, he's capable of mounting a blistering verbal assault.

While Good Will Hunting relied upon Matt Damon -- one of the most interesting young male actors working in Hollywood -- Finding Forrester relies upon an unknown. Rob Brown gives an adequate but not particularly inspired performance. Unlike Damon, Brown doesn't yet have the acting chops to convince us of his character's genius. To be fair, by definition, Jamal is supposed to slip into the scenery -- except when he's on a basketball court, where his fluid motions attract every eye in the house. However, in the movie's quieter scenes, Brown fails to register any intellectual power.

Connery totally overwhelms Brown. He's an imposing presence incapable of playing second fiddle to anyone. Like John Wayne or James Cagney, Connery completely obliterates anyone else in the same scene. I found it difficult to believe such a virile, powerful presence could melt away once beyond the confines of his apartment. Connery's face certainly looks marvelous on the movie posters, but I suspect Finding Forrester would have been more convincing with a more neurotic force in the title role. But Connery is undeniably fun to watch on screen -- and so goes the movie in general.

Finding Forrester isn't a particularly convincing movie, but you've gotta like it. You've gotta root for the kid to overcome the vengeful English teacher (F. Murray Abraham) who wants to crush young talent instead of nurturing it. You've gotta root for the kid to stand up to Forrester's blustery growls. You've gotta root for the kid to make the big plays on the basketball court. And you've gotta hope Jamal provides Forrester with the incentive to once again live in the outside world. Van Sant does deliver the goods. This is a wonderfully entertaining movie, but it also feels like Van Sant is coasting.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]