When was the last time a Hollywood movie portrayed the acts of reading and writing in such a gratifying and fulfilling way that it made you want to read a real book rather than an “airport” bestseller? And when was the last time you saw an interracial mentor-pupil relationship presented as mutually rewarding, and interracial teenage romance depicted without punitive condescension or parental disapproval? Gus Van Sant’s deftly crafted “Finding Forrester” achieves all of the above and more: It provides a platform for Sean Connery to deliver a definitive, career-summation performance as a reclusive, charismatic literary legend. With the right handling, Columbia has a sure winner here, a skillfully written, expertly acted picture whose uplifting plot should score high among viewers across the board.
With the notable exception of “Psycho,” his futile 1998 remake, Van Sant’s technical work continues to improve in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. His work has always shown a fondness for outsiders, but rather than merely depicting them sympathetically, Van Sant places his outcasts in crisis, forcing them to confront their relationship to society and its rules. Two of the filmmaker’s most-used motifs are highlighted in the new film: the moral odyssey of outsiders and the casual randomness of urban life.
Indeed, on the surface, “Finding Forrester” tells a similar story to that of Van Sant’s 1997 Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” with Connery playing the Robin Williams part and black teenager Rob Brown in the Matt Damon role, a gifted kid with a chip on his shoulder. While “Forrester” is critical of conservative educational institutions and tyrant instructors, it doesn’t put down the system itself.
With a touch of “Rear Window” voyeurism, narrative depicts Forrester as a silver-haired eccentric who spends a lot of time at his Bronx apartment window, seemingly observing a bunch of black kids playing ball in a court across the street; later it turns out he’s an avid bird-watcher. Veiled in mystery, the last the world has heard of Forrester was more than 40 years ago, when he was a brilliant Pulitzer-winning novelist. His book, which has since become a cherished classic, is apparently his only literary output.
As the youngsters are aware of Forrester’s invisible presence, their curiosity naturally builds. Sneaking into his apartment to get info about the mythical man, 16-year-old Jamal (Brown) accidentally leaves behind a backpack full of his writing. The next day, the bag appears at the window and, to Jamal’s surprise, his papers have been read and graded by Forrester. An unlikely relationship begins, marked by all the familiar ups and downs of such bonds. Turning point occurs when an exclusive Manhattan prep school recruits Jamal for his basketball talent and his academic achievement, and he seeks Forrester’s help in dealing with the new environment, becomes a reluctant hero and Jamal gradually becomes committed not only to his own writing, but to cracking Forrester’s shell.
Central acts chronicle the flowering of a union that goes beyond the routine teacher-pupil interaction. While lines of authority are clearly maintained, Mike Rich’s graceful script shows how dependent the mentor becomes on the kid, who evolves from an intrigued fan to a loyal student to a social companion, all the while determined to reignite Forrester’s passion for writing before it’s too late. Though earnest and utterly predictable, yarn avoids the traps of the similarly themed “Educating Rita,” in which a working-class hairdresser-wife (Julie Walters) forces a boozy professor (Michael Caine) to become her instructor. “Forrester” doesn’t unfold as a series of calculated setups painted with a broad brush — there are no cutesy scenes like Rita giving her mentor a shampoo. Rich inserts enough narrative subtleties and moral shadings into a friendship that ultimately becomes a surrogate family relationship.
The text is extremely old-fashioned: A crucial scene at school, in which Jamal is reprimanded for his conduct, functions as the equivalent of a courtroom scene, in which an inflexible teacher (F. Murray Abraham) is contrasted with good ones. A bigger mistake is that the filmmakers signal where the tale will ultimately go about a reel before it gets there.
Undoubtedly, it’s the bravura acting that binds viewers to the characters’ shifting emotions from one scene to the next. “Forrester” is very much a chamber piece for two, with more than half the scenes set indoors in Forrester’s cluttered, oversize apartment, inventively textured by production designer Jane Musky to capture the feel of a capacious pre-WWII residence, which later becomes a kind of Never Never Land. What gives pic a much needed outdoor cinematic dimension are the basketball scenes, which are dynamically shot by lenser Harris Savides, and Valdis Oskarsdottir provides modulated editing.
Playing the Salinger-like writer of legendary stature, Connery expertly fills the bill as a man who’s at once ingratiating and infuriating, a recluse who needs to be rescued from misanthropy. Role allows thesp to display his signature humor, a flourish of arrogance balanced by depth. Connery hasn’t only stopped masking his Scottishness, but now integrates it into the plot. But Forrester is by no means a one-man show.
Amazingly, with no previous experience, Brown stands up to Connery, and in some scenes even matches him with his inner strength and stillness. Anna Paquin plays a student who fosters a flirtatious friendship with Jamal, while “Good Will Hunting” star Matt Damon pops up for a late-in-the-game cameo.