Jamal Wallace (Robert Brown [in his screen debut]), a high school student living in the Bronx, does all of the right things. He goes to school, he plays basketball and he hides his intelligence. In an effort to be accepted by his friends and colleagues, he receives straight Cs and most of his teachers recognize that he is capable of more. After receiving very high scores on the Statewide standardized exams, his teachers urge him to accept a scholarship at a private school in Manhattan. He goes to check it out and meets Claire (Anna Paquin), his guide for the day. The school is very interested in having him join the basketball team, to help them make it to the championship. Jamal finds that he might be challenged here and decides to attend. Jamal has also just met an old recluse living in the top floor of an old brownstone near his basketball court. The recluse (Sean Connery), a local legend as a scary being, reads some of Jamal’s writing and encourages him to write more. They meet daily in the old man’s apartment and he stirs Jamal’s creative juices, getting him to further enhance his already considerable writing skill. Jamal soon learns that the old man is William Forrester, a J.D. Salinger-esque novelist who wrote one widely acclaimed novel (think “Catcher In The Rye”) and then disappeared from public view.
I have always enjoyed the work of Sean Connery. His screen presence has always been magnetic and he has used that to great advantage in most of his films. He earned fame and riches from playing icons, creating a character that will probably forever be credited to him. He has been unable to shake that character even though the last time he played the character was over fifteen years ago. Connery has created some incredible performances through the years. He played an aging Robin Hood against an aging Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) in a very good film that many people have never heard of. He played a great thief in a film called “The Anderson Tapes”. He played a great con man that would become “The Man Who Would Be King”. He played an aging mentor in “The Untouchables” adding a lot of class and earning an Academy Award for his portrayal. He has played a lot of memorable roles that challenged his acting skills. He has also appeared in films like “Meteor”, “Just Cause” and “First Knight”. Truly terrible films that only served to mar his work. However, he has never played a character like William Forrester. We have all seen characters like this in a number of films. A recluse, a famous person, a bombastic person. Yet Connery brings a quality to the role that is very unique. Often, actors use this type of role to chew the scenery and run around screaming and yelling. This only serves to undermine the character. If the character is an old man or woman where are they getting all of this energy. Connery plays the character old. He does raise his voice, but to make a point. He does impart his wisdom, but his wisdom makes sense. I actually believed that he was a writer, listening to the advice he gives his young protege. It is an incredibly rich performance that should know become the standard for which Sean Connery is judged. James who?
Rob Brown brings a lot to the role and manages to hold his own against Connery. This is no small feat. A lot of this can be credited to his naturalistic performance. Brown has obviously lived through events that are very similar to those depicted on the screen and he channels his own emotions to that of the character. One of the many good things about the film is that Jamal and Forrester seem to teach and learn from each other, enriching each other's lives.
Gus Van Sant returns to territory that is very similar to “Good Will Hunting”, but he creates a different mood and feel, helping to set “Finding Forrester” apart from the other film. The film opens with a shot of a marker with Van Sant’s name on it followed by some documentary style footage of kids in the neighborhood. This immediately heightens our awareness of the neighborhood and the people who live there. It is actually a great touch, bringing the audience into this world very quickly and effectively. The film is then told in a fairly conventional style as Van Sant concentrates on the characters and the story. The film moves at a leisurely pace; it takes about four meetings between Jamal and Forrester before they actually start working together. This allows us to get to know these characters in what seems a natural way.
Van Sant and the writer, Mike Rich, another first timer, focus on a lot of details which make the film seem very rich. Jamal’s mom, Ms. Joyce (April Grace), is a very good mother who encourages her son and provides a good home. His brother, Terrel (Busta Rhymes), encourages Jamal to take chances, to avoid making the same mistakes he made. He had dreams of being a rapper but is now the supervisor of parking services at Yankee Stadium. He hasn’t achieved his dreams, but he doesn’t let this make him bitter. Jamal’s friends are also a very close bunch. Forrester is a recluse, yet he insults the few people who are required to visit him on a regular basis. These details may seem insignificant, but they help create a richly textured film.
F. Murray Abraham plays the English professor at Jamal’s new school and he is very effective. His snobbishness affects his every exchange with people. They are either less intelligent or undeserving of such an education. Anna Paquin plays a young girl who becomes closer to Jamal. Her performance is very good because she seems more attracted to Jamal for the dangerous aspect of an interracial relationship. At times, she seems to wonder if she is actually attracted to Jamal or the color of his skin.
I found one thing odd. In a film about writing, we hear almost none of either writer’s work. We hear a couple of lines here and there, but it is difficult to take that in in such a brief period of time. I would have liked to hear more of the writing in the final competition, to get more of a sense of the authors work. Instead, Van Sant shows us reaction shots of the various students, set to music, which I didn’t feel was very effective.
“Finding Forrester” is one of the best films of the year. Connery is great, the direction and writing are rich and subtle and the film is very enjoyable.