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High Marks for 'Forrester'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2000

   


    'Finding Forrester' Rob Brown and Sean Connery find each other in "Finding Forrester."
(Columbia Pictures)
As he did in "Good Will Hunting," director Gus Van Sant pours the melted cheese on pretty heavily in "Finding Forrester," another tale of a Young, Working-Class Genius and the Mentor Who Loves Him. Fortunately in this case, the thick sauce of sentiment does not overwhelm the taste of fresh meat, here represented by novice actor Rob Brown, a teenager with exactly zero experience who steals the show from his more experienced costar, Sean Connery.

Brown, who turned 16 just before shooting this, his first film, plays Jamal Wallace, a classic high-school underachiever with a gift for literature. Although he's a straight-C student, he scores off the charts in standardized tests, thereby drawing the attention of a virtually lily-white private school in Manhattan that wants to give him, a poor, African American kid from the Bronx, a full scholarship. It doesn't hurt that he's a bit of a basketball prodigy either.

Around this same time, too, our hero (who plays Jamal with a naturalness that is almost scary) draws the attention of a neighborhood recluse (Connery), a creepy white-haired guy that Jamal and his homies refer to as the "Window" for his habit of peeking out of his curtains at the teenage b-ball players across the street. One day, on a dare, Jamal sneaks into the Window's apartment where, startled by a mouse, he drops his book bag and flees. When he gets it back, his journals have been red-penciled with astute, if ungentle, criticism.

Soon Jamal, hungry for an environment where his intellectual gifts won't be mocked (as they are, apparently, on the blacktop), has befriended the bookish hermit. He, it turns out, is one William Forrester, a cross between Howard Hughes and J.D. Salinger, who 50 years earlier wrote the great American novel "Avalon Landing," his first and only book, and one that took the Pulitzer Prize. Now, he pads around his book-lined flat in pajamas and inside-out socks, a glass of Scotch in his hand, too traumatized to venture outdoors.

Traumatized by what, you might ask. And if you do, you'll probably be somewhat disappointed. Although Van Sant and writer Mike Rich provide an answer, of sorts, that's not the point of the story, which has as much to do with Jamal as with William. The unlikely friendship that grows out of their chance encounter and the lessons that each learns from the other is "Forrester's" theme, and Van Sant lays off the Velveeta there.

Not so over at Jamal's new school, where F. Murray Abraham's portrayal of an embittered, racist teacher and failed writer, envious of Jamal's talent and determined to destroy him, is way too obvious. A budding romance between Jamal and a perky white classmate played by Anna Paquin is also a little more "Romeo and Juliet" than is strictly necessary for the story.

Most intriguing of all, though, is the handling of the matter of writing, an activity so internal and private as to be virtually uncinematic. As Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys" did, "Finding Forrester" manages to take the cerebral act of literary creation and make it exciting, sexy even. This, not the avoidance of schmaltz, is Van Sant's greatest feat, and one that should make any lover of the written word take heart.

"Finding Forrester" (PG-13, 140 minutes) – Contains some mild obscenity.

 

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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