“I know what it is!” yells William Forrester (Sean Connery) to Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown). “I don’t need another person telling me what they think it is!” The “it” he’s referring to is his first book, Avalon Landing, published in 1954 and greeted as the Great American Novel and a generation-defining tome. Forrester’s response to the accolades — and the pointed personal questions which accompanied them — was to retreat. He’s lived in self-imposed exile ever since.
While Forrester’s reputation grew in literary circles, and his book became required reading in high schools and universities, the man himself became a mystery to his Bronx neighbors. Since he was one of the few residents inhabiting an ornate older building in an area dominated by high-rise projects, a legend began to grow among the neighborhood kids about this white ghost and what kept him locked away there.
The two threads of Forrester’s life meet when Jamal enters the apartment on a dare, only to find the supposed house of horrors filled with books and papers. It’s a fortuitous event for both of them, marking the beginning of Forrester’s re-emergence to the outside world as Jamal encounters an important mentor at a crucial moment in his young life. It’s a typical movie conceit, that the two people who need each other the most should find each other at precisely the right moment, but screenwriter Mike Rich has created two complex characters who resist facile categorization.
Jamal is proud of his basketball prowess and fits easily with his circle of friends. But he’s also a voracious reader, a devoted writer and a budding scholar who tries to fit in at his public high school by getting average grades. When he’s granted a scholarship to a tony Manhattan private school, he finds few friends outside of Claire Spence (Anna Paquin), whose entitlement and sense of curiosity put her on the social fringe almost as much as Jamal, who’s viewed as a jock with little academic potential by his fatuous English professor, Crawford (F. Murray Abraham). All this upheaval is countered by the demanding but rewarding friendship with Forrester, a difficult man who’s not afraid of the truth, even when he’s hiding from it.
With independent films including Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, director Gus Van Sant is known for the rigorous beauty of his images and allowing characters telling moments of aching honesty, when they can break through the layers of their carefully constructed facades. In his mainstream films such as Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester (which both explore the mentor-protégé relationship), he adopts an intimate and naturalistic style that seems almost artless. His location shooting also provides these characters with a strong sense of place: that they come from somewhere which marks their development.
Finding Forrester doesn’t go beyond what’s expected, but settles comfortably into its particular niche. It even manages to make the writing process visually interesting, even as screenwriter Rich perpetuates some cliches (Jamal’s memory for literary quotations and automotive history is used to express his intelligence). But it’s the rare film which views the creative impulse as something that can exist in anyone, and can come to fruition given the right outlet. That’s American egalitarianism according to Van Sant.
See this week's Reckless Eyeballing for an exclusive interview with director Van Sant.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.