Finding Forrester (2000)

D: Gus Van Sant
S: Sean Connery, Robert Brown

Director Gus Van Sant, once renowned for edgy, indie productions like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho continues his adventures in the mainstream following the popular Good Will Hunting and the not-so-popular remake of Psycho with this deftly realised retread of every cliché in the textbook of affirmational cinema. This is the story of a highly intelligent and artistically gifted sixteen year old high school student from the Bronx (Robert Brown) who crosses paths with a reclusive, Pulitzer Prize winning author (Sean Connery). The latter teaches the former about expressing oneself through writing and the former teaches the latter that life is worth living after all. It all comes to a head with a public confrontation with an embittered academic who refuses to acknowledge the boy's genius (F. Murray Abraham). Injustice is trounced and the spirit of true talent triumphs against institutional prejudice.

Like the similarly unfathomable Steven Soderbergh did with Erin Brockovich, Van Sant dodges the bullets of a familiar story with clever narrative lapses and a rich visual texture which gives the impression of granting insight when all it's doing is skimming the surface. The tale itself is both too familiar and too unlikely to really work on its own, and it frequently threatens to topple over into sentimental manipulation before doing so at the climax. Yet by keeping the pace swift and leaping quickly through the timeline of the story in favour of its dramatic highlights, Van Sant ensures that the audience has enough information to understand what's going on but leaves the finer points to the imagination. It's a form of montage cinema which would find little favour with the inventors of the form but seems to suit contemporary American filmmakers quite well. The result is of course a collection of contrivances, scenes which are quite literally designed for immediate impact rather than careful set-up and follow through. They add up to a movie all right, but after a century of trying to make moving images communicate on a deeper level it seems a shame that talent is expended on stripping them of life in favour of such conventional narratives. Though there is a thematic consistency to it and yes there are some coherent story threads which get you to the finale, the impression it gives is not so much a story well told as one well charted. Unfortunately of course, God is often in the details, and when it comes to really addressing the class, race, and emotional conundrums raised by the scenario by going deeper into the characters and the settings, the film baulks in favour of getting on with the plot.

Luckily for Van Sant he has also managed to land one of Sean Connery's finest performances in years. Connery, every inch the movie star, has carried himself with slick dignity through autopilot performances in the likes of Entrapment and The Rock, never stretching his characterisation beyond some wry smiles and rugged determination. In Finding Forrester he has been given a character with quite an array of responses to the world. Proceeding from an initial (again textbook) gruffness, the actor gradually unfolds the layers of backstory in quite subtle ways. He never labours the point, but the clichés are made to make sense. We can actually see this character going through a process of change on screen, captured in manner, gesture, and vocal register. Though it's an old, old story of the strange old man who turns out to have a good heart, Connery makes it feel authentic and immediate in a way which really anchors the movie. Young Brown is likewise given a character who must navigate between hoary old Hollywood standards towards something believable, and he manages it well under the circumstances. The two stars work well together and it is to Brown's credit that he not only holds his own against Connery, but contributes to the feeling that their scenes are between human beings and not screenwriters' contrivances.

Yet contrivances there are, and Finding Forrester is still Good Will Hunting revisited in too many ways. Its insights are clichés, its characters are stock types, and it feels a little too smug about itself for its own good. It trips around the minefield of contemporary American social inequities despite the presence of an obvious division between the upper crust whitebread school and Brown's home in the Bronx. It sneaks away from exploring how his relationships with his peers are affected by the emergence of his genius by quietly suggesting things are changing without following through. It also makes it all too easy for natural talent to emerge in the fiercely competitive American education system. Though it pits seemingly intractable forces against our hero in the form of a school board who try to stream him into basketball rather than academics, there is never any doubt that he will win out in the end. The same is true in terms of Connery's character, despite an emotional imbalance reinforced by the deliberate control he exerts over his environment (brilliantly demonstrated as an illness by a scene in which he almost disappears into a schizophrenic daze when faced with the crowds at Madison Square Gardens). There is never a question that his encounter with the youngster will challenge his values and rekindle his smothered spirit, and though his big exit is almost too twee for words, darn it it works. This is affirmational cinema in the mould of countless Hollywood programmers and even more recent films like Dead Poets Society and Scent of a Woman which relies upon the expectation of and wish for a happy resolution over anything remotely resembling reality. Its character arcs have been plotted though a century of precedent, and despite its visual representation of urban physical and psychological enclosure, this is an all-too benign world with only a cartoonish villain to be dispensed with before finding the catharsis at end of the rainbow.

The film is nonetheless surprisingly watchable. Van Sant is clever in choosing to avoid the pitfalls of dramatic complexity and keeping things superficial. It moves fast enough to be tolerable and has good enough performances at its centre to quite literally get away with it. Casual viewers will probably enjoy it (though it may run a tad too long for some), more discerning cinephiles will probably spit on it, but if one is to give the film is fair due then the most appropriate response is probably somewhere in between.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.