As a former high school English teacher on the Navajo reservation, I’m a “sucker” for any movie that shows a minority high school student with dreams and aspirations of becoming a writer, who is helped along by a mentor. I had a similar student whose creativity was “hidden” to many previous teachers, but has now blossomed into a published poet who teaches English at the college level.
Set in the south Bronx we meet Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown) as a bright African American student, who secretly reads great novels and writes continually in journals. Secretly, because his peers are not into academics. They are into basketball, so that is where Jamal “gets his acceptance” because he is extremely gifted in that area as well. In school Jamal sleepwalks his way for C's because his peers think A's and B's aren't cool.
It is on the outdoor basketball court where Jamal hears about the recluse who peers at them with binoculars. Like the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, Jamal accepts the dare of his buddies to sneak into the man's apartment, but he leaves behind his backpack when the middle-aged recluse startles him. This sets up the eventual meeting between the two. The recluse turns out to be William Forrester (Sean Connery), a noted Pulitzer Prize winning author who only published one novel (a touch of J.D. Salinger here)
When Jamal's state aptitude test scores reveal his brilliance, an elite private school offers a scholarship. While the test scores pique the school's interest, rest assured that they have scouted Jamal on the basketball court. Of course this will set up a future situation.
We get predictable roles with a largely predictable plot the rest of the way. There's the platonic love interest that develops between Jamal and Claire (Anna Paquin) – they go as far as holding hands briefly near the end. And Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) personifies the enemy teacher, who can't believe that a black kid from the Bronx could possibly write the eloquent prose that Jamal turns in. Perhaps Abraham's Salieri role inspired the casting director for this relatively small part, as it turns out that he plays a similar jealous role here with Forrester.
The thing that makes this movie stand up and go beyond a made for TV afterschool special, lies in the relationship that develops between Forrester and young Wallace. They both have something to give to the other, and the film comes to life best when they work together on the screen.
Much credit must go to Rob Brown in his feature debut. While watching him work with the Connery, I can imagine that the veteran actor mentored the novice actor on the set. Indeed, I would expect that the old Scotsman would dominate the scenes completely, but we find that Brown holds his own and does carry the movie. Brown does show some change in character from a relatively quiet public school student to the more confident and aggressive private school scholar. The change does seem rather abrupt, but this is more due to the script than it is to Brown's acting skills, as he seems quite natural in the role.
Make no mistake about it. This is pure formula movie, with an overall script that can write itself, and it follows the pattern of Good Will Hunting almost perfectly except we now have the cranky Scotsman mentor instead of the weepy Robin Williams, and have writing instead of mathematics. It's a little looser with the details than the script that Ben Afflect and Matt Damon researched for Good Will Hunting. About the only solid writing advice we hear Forrester give his young student is to “punch the keys” and write even when uninspired – about the same advice that Billy Crystal gives in Throw Mama Off the Train when he states that “writers write, always.”
We certainly don't get much of a clue about Jamal's writing either, nor do we find out what Forrester writes about. After all, the guy hasn't left his apartment for over 40 years. Emily Dickinson wrote a great deal of poetry during her self imposed isolation, but Forrester writes novels. It'd be interesting to find out what the subject matter is, but perhaps the difficulty in translating that to film may be too much of a challenge since the writing isn't really the key here. Indeed, there is more focus on trying to get Forrester out of his apartment and on Jamal's basketball prowess than there is on the writing process.
A few places really hit me as very contrived and hokey – most notably during the championship basketball game. During the halftime of the big game, somehow a Board member corners a non sweaty Jamal in an unspecified area of the gym complex with an offer that he thinks William cannot refuse – Professor Crawford will drop his charges of plagiarism if Jamal will just “shuffle” like a good little black boy and win the championship and then enroll in less strenuous courses the following year.
With an offer like that we already know what our hero will do – this is the crux of the whole film. And then comes the big moment at the end of the game with ace free throw shooting Jamal on the line for two shots to win the championship. Why does Van Sant go for the obvious camera shots here? Tell me one basketball player in this situation that would deliberately stare into the crowd to meet the eyes of the two private school thorns in his side before shooting those free throws!
Aside from the holes in the script and the expected smaltz, I did enjoy Finding Forrester. But I am predisposed to liking decent movies about high school life, like Stand and Deliver and Dead Poet's Society. But it's a predictable formula film that is quickly forgotten.