USA, 2000. Rated PG-13. 133 minutes.
Cast: Sean Connery, Robert Brown,
F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin, Busta Rhymes, April Grace, Michael Pitt,
Michael Nouri, Richard Easton, Glen Fitzgerald, Zane R. Copeland Jr.
|Grade: B-||Review by Carlo Cavagna|
ave you heard the story of the prodigiously talented young kid from the wrong part of town who blossoms with the assistance of a cranky, tough-love mentor who, as a result of the interaction, revitalizes his own life? Much in the same way that M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is a sequel, thematically, to his previous film, The Sixth Sense, Gus Van Sant's Finding Forrester is a reprise of his previous-film-once-removed, Good Will Hunting. But to dismiss Finding Forrester as just a rehash of Good Will Hunting is not entirely fair.
While Good Will Hunting is more fun (rating: B+), Finding Forrester is, in some ways, more satisfying. The story is less fantastic–instead of an impossibly gifted janitor, Finding Forrester follows a sixteen-year-old African American kid from Harlem (newcomer Robert Brown), who is a well-read budding writer. Nothing about his talent strains credibility, with the possible exception of one scene in which he identifies the sources of a rapid-fire series of quotes, without hesitating, blinking, or even waiting to hear more than a few words. The character of Jamal Wallace is more believable than Will Hunting, which may help the audience care about him more. There is never much doubt that Will Hunting can and will succeed at anything he wants, once he conquers his personal demons.
By contrast, Jamal's demons are mostly external. Because he goes to school in Harlem, his talent has small chance of being recognized, especially because he avoids performing any better than necessary. To do so would mean rejection by his peers, so he keeps a low academic profile and spends his afternoons playing basketball–something he also does extremely well. But when he performs outstandingly on a standardized test, a downtown private school comes calling. Their scholarship offer is strictly on an academic basis, they claim, but they "won't be disappointed" if he chooses to play basketball. Obviously, issues of race and economic disadvantage make Jamal uncomfortable at his new school, but it's his only chance at a real education.
As all these changes in Jamal's life are taking place, writer Mike Rich uses a rather silly story device to bring him together with legendary and reclusive J.D. Salinger-like author William Forrester (Sean Connery). Forrester churned out the Great American Novel in the early Fifties but quickly disappeared from public view. He spent the subsequent four decades cloistered in his Harlem apartment while the neighborhood around his building became increasingly poor and run down. Sreenwriter Mike Rich asks us to believe that, in the present day, Jamal and all his friends are aware of the mysterious man who lives in Forrester's apartment whom they refer to as "The Window." As if they would even notice one recluse among the hundreds of apartments in the neighborhood.
On a dare, Jamal breaks into Forrester's apartment, and that's the start of a difficult friendship that will deeply affect both of them. Jamal's curiosity mounts about Forrester's self-imposed confinement and why he published only one novel. Oh, no–there'll be no questions about that, Forrester sternly warns his new protégé. Unlike in Good Will Hunting, the relationship between mentor and protégé is the center of the film, and Connery has a more developed character and far more screen time than did Robin Williams.
Sean Connery may not get an Academy Award™ nomination for this film, but he deserves one. This is his finest performance in years… maybe decades… maybe ever. Connery's comedic scene-stealer in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and his Oscar™-winning turn in The Untouchables are career highlights, but Finding Forrester is his most multidimensional and difficult role since The Man Who Would Be King. Word is that William Forrester was written as just another cranky-mentor Connery role, but that Connery himself was a driving force in making Forrester a little more vulnerable and pathetic. When he's called upon to embody the crankier-than-thou persona we know (and love) so well, Connery avoids hamming it up as he often does, dialing back his performance just enough to stay within the bounds of the character's realism.
The Big Picture
Connery, who also produced, is joined by a fine cast. Opposite Connery, Brown doesn't give a varied performance, but he projects just the right mix of anger, pain, and diffidence. Oscar™-winner F. Murray Abraham, as Jamal's dictatorial and self-important English teacher, and April Grace, as Jamal's mother, are also standouts. In his big screen debut, rap star Busta Rhymes enhances an adequate performance with his considerable charisma, while Anna Paquin, also an Oscar™-winner, is less mannered than usual. Van Sant steers the cast with a light touch, allowing them to shine on their own without resorting to aggressive director's tricks.
Finding Forrester has a similarly light touch in dealing with its themes. This film could have been quite strident with its racial message, but Van Sant and Rich allow the characters' situations and responses to speak for themselves, which conveys the message far more effectively. After all, as Forrester and Jamal discuss, being specific is one of the first rules of writing. In fact, in the climactic scene, there is no mention of race whatsoever. There doesn't have to be–it's always present in the movie, much as in life, coloring everything.
By the time Forrester braves the outside world to ride to the rescue of his young ward in the Scent of a Woman-like climax, it's filmmaking by the numbers–hey, a movie has to have a climactic scene and a resolution, doesn't it? It's past time for the credits to roll, but they are delayed by an unnecessary epilogue featuring a cameo appearance by Good Will Hunting himself, Matt Damon. Fortunately, it is the characters and themes that carry Finding Forrester, not the well-worn, predictable plot developments.
© January 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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