Finding Forrester extends good will
by Peter Keough
Despite the hostile response to his near frame-by-frame re-creation of Alfred
Hitchcock's Psycho, Gus Van Sant doesn't seem to have shaken off his
repetition compulsion. At first glance his Finding Forrester seems like
another version of Good Will Hunting with a few minor changes. There's
the volatile inner-city prodigy, the crusty mentor, the lovingly detailed funky
neighborhood, the circle of homeboy friends. There's even Matt Damon, sort of.
As opposed to what happened with Psycho, however, here Van Sant improves
on the original -- just the absence of Robin Williams, bad Boston accent and
Oscar and all, is a plus. Some might accuse the director of selling out the
edgy independence and chimerical inventiveness of his earlier work, but with
films like this he seems to be filling a more important niche, making
mainstream movies that are cannily crafted and at times even subversive --
feel-good movies that also make you feel uneasy.
Sometimes it takes only a pair of complementary shots to challenge the status
quo. Forrester opens with a long shot of a window in a corner brownstone
in the South Bronx. Those looking on include 16-year-old Jamal Wallace (Rob
Brown), who's shooting hoops with his friends across the street. A spectral
figure passes; it's "The Window," the local equivalent of To Kill a
Mockingbird's Boo Radley. On a dare, Jamal agrees to break into the
apartment and bring back something to prove he did. Some two-plus film hours
later, he's got his booty in hand, but the shot is reversed, with the
basketball court seen from the window. It's a new point of view, true for
Jamal, and perhaps for the audience as well.
Does Gus Van Sant mind the comparisons between Finding Forrester and his
Oscar-winning 1997 hit, Good Will Hunting?
"No, it's on the poster," he says with a laugh. "Which wasn't my idea. And
that's not meant to compare them, but it suggests something -- that if you
liked Good Will Hunting, you'll like this movie. I think that would
probably work. Like The Shawshank Redemption and then The Green
Mile? They were both by Stephen King, both directed by the same guy, and
both in the '30s. So do you think that if you liked The Shawshank
Redemption, you might have liked The Green Mile? Anyway, I didn't
really mind the idea of putting `From the Director of Good Will Hunting'
on there because I thought it made sense, whereas when they released a novel I
wrote called Pink, they wanted to put, you know, `By the Director of
Good Will Hunting' on it, and I thought that was steering people in the
Some might think that Van Sant himself has been steered in the wrong direction
of popular pablum, that he should return to the funky marginality explored in
his experimental Pink, a fictionalized look at the making of My Own
Private Idaho (1991) and his obsession with the film's star, River Phoenix,
and subsequent grief and guilt over the actor's death by overdose.
Van Sant is not offended by the suggestion that he may have sold out somewhat,
but he is reflective. "I think that when I was starting out and was making my
first three films, Mala Noche , Drugstore Cowboy ,
and My Own Private Idaho, before I went into another arena, which was
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues  and then To Die For ,
which don't really connect to my own genres, and I'm now into this, aside from
Psycho , into this Good Will Hunting and Finding
Forrester area. When I was making the other films, I felt like I was always
under the impression that if you made a film audience-friendly or more of
something they would expect to see on the screen when they go in, something
that is uplifting and positive, that it's an easier way to go than to be making
something that's not like that. But I had no proof, and making Good Will
Hunting and Finding Forrester were, aside from other things, a way
to challenge myself and see if I was in fact right, or if it was just sour
grapes, and me saying, oh, those movies are easier to make. And I was just
challenging myself to see if they were in fact easier to make.
"Well, they are easier. They're easier to draw a larger audience. If you
look at Drugstore Cowboy as a successful rendition of that story,
technically, you know, if it's a good movie, though limited perhaps by the
characters and the events in the movie, but you compare that with Good Will
Hunting, which, technically, is also done dramatically well, I think what
you have is a movie that's made $10 million as opposed to $140 million, and I
think that discrepancy is because of general audience appeal. Which was the
theory that's being proven true. I guess Finding Forrester is another
way to test that theory, to see whether that actually is true."
Speaking of theories and experiments to test them: what about his
Psycho, which aroused the wrath of critics and the indifference of
viewers, not to mention costing Universal Pictures $20 million. Was this one
experiment that blew up in his face?
"No, no," says Van Sant enigmatically. "I think it's aging quite nicely."
In the beginning, though, he's the star basketball player of his local high
school, and his friends are cool with that. He's also a talented writer,
something he suspects is not so cool. He writes secretly in a diary he keeps in
his backpack -- and that's what he leaves behind when he's surprised by the
denizen of the mystery apartment he's broken into. Said denizen is none other
than the legendary William Forrester (Sean Connery), who made his mark 50 years
before by writing "the great American novel" (odd, given his Scottish accent).
Since then he's vanished into a J.D. Salinger-like reclusiveness that's now
broken by his chance encounter with Jamal's jottings. The two become friends of
a sort, with Jamal opening the blinds of Forrester's world a crack and
Forrester honing Jamal's talent (his writing advice is actually intelligent)
and stoking his ambition, encouraging him to accept a scholarship to a tony
prep school in Manhattan.
Forrester relies on the kind of plot devices that make movies of this
type embarrassing, but Van Sant springs them with the savvy innocence and
fairy-tale terror and charm (the apartment and the stairway leading up to it
are much spookier than, for example, anything in Van Sant's Psycho) that
are among his more endearing traits. That and his knack for drawing out
unexpected and haunting performances. First-timer Rob Brown is the acting
discovery of the year, demonstrating a subtle intensity in his laconic line
readings and weighty timing. His physical grace and palpable intelligence make
a strong case that if any 16-year-old is capable of both slam dunks and
brilliant prose, it's him. Connery has a tougher time as a character whose
genius and flight from success are never satisfactorily explained, and neither
does first-time screenwriter Mike Rich acquit himself well in trying to
re-create the master's prose. But the warmth of growing intimacy and the
vulnerability of age come through, especially in a scene where Forrester
ventures out into the world with his friend, only to lose his way.
Van Sant loses his way a little himself when Jamal enters the clubby confines
of his new school. There the film verges into Dead Poets Society and
Scent of a Woman terrain, with F. Murray Abraham playing a variation on
Salieri as Professor Crawford, a weasely embodiment of the
those-who-can't-do-teach calumny who doesn't believe someone like Jamal can
write as well as he does and goes to embarrassing lengths to prove him a
plagiarist. A more compelling complication is the spark of attraction between
Jamal and Claire (Anna Paquin), his fellow student and the daughter of one of
the board of directors. No Matt-and-Minnie amours are indulged in here, sad to
say -- apparently an interracial teen romance is too risky for the director of
Drugstore Cowboys and My Own Private Idaho. He's a sly one,
though -- perhaps with the new point of view established by the film's
conclusion, such a subject might not be so risky any more.