On the surface, it would appear that director Gus Van Sant was only retreating back past the mess he made of “Psycho” to create just another version of his last success, “Good Will Hunting”. Once again, you have a movie about a brilliant but troubled younger character and a brilliant but troubled older character. If the older character can help the younger one find his potential, his mentored charge might just help him dislodge his own head from his a*s where it had been stuck for years. Matt Damon even turns up in a cameo. Thankfully, Van Sant and writer Mike Rich have something else in mind.
Jamal Wallace (newcomer Rob Brown) is a 16-year-old black kid in the Bronx. Coming from a broken home in a rough neighborhood, he’s got a couple of things going for him. Jamal’s a great basketball player, but so was his brother (Busta Rhymes), and all he does now is park cars. Though he only does well enough in school to get by, Jamal has a great mind and writing talent that’s emerging in his personal journals.
Two events quickly alter Jamal’s life. First, his journals fall into the hands of a strange, old shut-in (Sean Connery) who lives down the street. The strange man returns the books only after fully critiquing them. The young man then asks the older one to help him with his writing.
Soon after that, Jamal’s standardized test scores come back prompting an immediate full-scholarship to a tony prep school in Manhattan. Of course, if he would like to go out for the basketball team, that would be okay with them.
Well, one of the first assignments from the new school’s self-important English instructor, failed-writer Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham), is to read the lone novel of the reclusive William Forrester, the Pulitzer-Prize winning “Avalon Landing”. Soon enough, Jamal puts together that his cranky old recluse of a mentor is the J.D. Salinger-esque Forrester. Forrester acknowledges the fact but swears his pupil to secrecy.
Well, at his new school Jamal thrives on the court and in the classroom. His writing improves so much that the prissy Crawford can’t believe that a black kid from the Bronx could ever be capable of the kind of work that’s been turned in to him. Soon enough, a showdown will take place, and the proud Jamal might need some help to find his way out of trouble.
I’ve been going back and forth about how I feel about this film. Much of my problem is the part left to Abraham. He’s not the only Oscar-winning actor in the cast (Connery and Anna Paquin have theirs), but his award is the only one to doom its recipient to a lifetime of bitter, constipated a******s on the screen. However under-developed the other parts are, they all at least possess some positive characteristics. Abraham’s Crawford is just a know-it-all dick. He treats his students like an audience that had better know when to applaud and when to shut the hell up. Of course, Jamal Wallace don’t play that.
What makes up for the deficiencies in this area is Rich’s very nuanced exploration of what it means to write and be a writer. Crawford understands what it takes to be technically proficient, but doesn’t have a clue of what it really takes to be great. Forrester, who has enough contempt for everyone, finds a good student in Wallace, as the future writer learns what’s really important in expressing your ideas. Forrester also has a few choice words for the kind of people (yes, like me) who would presume to comprehend what an author is really trying to say.
“Finding Forrester” is not the fastest-paced film in the world, nor the most stirring. It is however the most complete portrait of what it means to be a writer that I’ve seen in a long time. I guess in this case, I should remember to give people some slack about their delivery. Sometimes it’s more important to focus on what they’re trying to say. Looking at it that way, this film is an astonishing success.