Finding Forrester: Van Sant’s Film, Starring Sean Connery

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” best-seller 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 dissent. Ignore the literal title and didactic tone, Finding Forrester, Gas Van Sant’s deftly-crafted film, achieves all of the above and also provides a platform for Sean Cannery to deliver a riveting performance as a reclusive yet charismatic literary legend.

With the notable exception of Psycho, his futile 1998 remake, Van Saint’s technical work continues to improve in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. From the beginning, his oeuvre has shown fondness for outsiders, such as the characters of Drugstore Cowboys or My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant’s strategy is not just to depict outcasts in a humanistic way, but also to throw them to a point of crisis, forcing to confront the mores of the society at large. In this respect, Forrester highlights auteur’s most recurrent motifs: the moral odyssey of outcasts and the casual randomness of urban life.

On the surface, Finding Forrester tells a similar story to that of Van Saint’s 1997 Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, with Cannery playing the Robin Williams’ part and black teenager Rob Brown in the role of Matt Damon, a gifted kid with a chip on his shoulder. However, the difference is that if Good Will idealized a mathematical genius superior to Harvard students, Forrester is critical of conservative educational institutions and tyrant instructors, but it doesn’t put down the system itself.

With a touch of Rear Window’s voyeurism, narrative depicts Forester as a silver-haired eccentric who spends a lot of time at his 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 is 40 years ago, when he was a brilliant Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist whose book has become a cherished classic. It appears to be the only literary output–and achievement–to which he can claim credit.

As the youngsters are aware of Forester’s invisible presence, their curiosity naturally builds up. Sneaking into his apartment to get info about the mythical man, Jamal (Brown), a brash-16-year-old from South Bronx, accidentally leaves behind a backpack full of writings. The next day, the bag appears at the window, forcing Jamal to collect it. To his surprise, his papers have been thoroughly read and graded by Forrester with a red pen.

A peculiar and unlikely relationship begins to evolve, marked by all the familiar ups and downs of such bonds. Turning point occurs when Jamal is recruited by an elite Manhattan prep school for his brilliance on and off the basketball court, and needs help. Though at first hesitant and cynical, Forrester consents and hence becomes a reluctant hero. Gradually, Jamal becomes committed not only to his writing aspirations, but to cracking the veneer of Forester’s sheltered and alienated existence.

Central acts chronicle the flowering of a union that goes beyond the routine teacher-pupil interaction. While authority lines are clearly maintained, the grace of Mike Rich’s script is that it shows how dependent the mentor becomes on a kid, who evolves from an intrigued fan to a loyal student to a social companion, all along determined to expose Forester to the world and reignite his passion before it’s too late. Indeed, unlike most Hollywood sagas about outcast-students, including Sidney Poitier’s vehicle, To Sir With Love, in this film, both parties gets something substantial in return that they would not have gotten without their tie.

Though earnest and utterly predictable, yarn almost 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. Unlike Rita, Forrester doesn’t unfold as a series of calculated set-ups painted with a broad brush–no cutsey 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 other problem is the text’s extremely old-fashioned quality. A crucial scene at school, in which Jamal is reprimanded for his conduct, functions as the equivalent courtroom scene, where bad or inflexible teachers (F. Murray Abraham) are 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.

Finding Forrester is a chamber piece for two, with more than half of the scenes set indoors in Forester’s cluttered, seedy, oversized apartment, inventively textured by Jane Musky to capture the feel of a capacious pre-WWII residence, which later becomes a kind of mythical Never Never Land.

What gives the picture a much needed outdoor dimension are the ball scenes, particularly the one set at Bronx’s Copps Coliseum, which are dynamically shot by lenser Harris Savides, and modulated editing by Valdis Oskarsdottir, who worked on such Dogma 95 films as Celebration.

Playing an older man of great stature, Cannery expertly fills the bill as a person who’s at once ingratiating and infuriating, a reclusive who needs to be rescued from misanthropy. Role allows thesp to display his signature humor, flourish, arrogance but also depth of humanity. Interestingly, Cannery hasn’t only stopped masking his Scottishness anymore, but now integrates it into the plot, hauling his unique accent with grandeur and nobility. But Forrester is by no means a one-man show. Amazingly, with no previous experience, Brown stands up to Cannery, and in some scenes even matches him with his own inner strength and stillness.