The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: DECEMBER 21-28, 2000

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Happy hunting

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.

Will power

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 wrong direction."

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 [1985], Drugstore Cowboy [1989], and My Own Private Idaho, before I went into another arena, which was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues [1993] and then To Die For [1995], which don't really connect to my own genres, and I'm now into this, aside from Psycho [1999], 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."

-- PK

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.

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.

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