In the highly unoriginal but nevertheless stirring drama Finding Forrester, a wary young man who shows signs of genius once again connects with an emotionally barricaded older male mentor, and both are healed by trust in the other. Once again, Matt Damon appears. Once again, Gus Van Sant directs.
But the similarities to ”Good Will Hunting” end there, and a good thing, too. Like a student copying over his homework and in the process improving his spelling and penmanship, Van Sant has made a much less smudgy fable about the importance of helping professions, and the mental health benefits of getting out of the house more.
Forrester’s full name is William Forrester (Sean Connery). The famous author of an acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning novel with the same pull on readers as ”The Catcher in the Rye” (a man who nurses eccentricities not unlike those of J.D. Salinger), he never leaves his dark, rambling apartment in the Bronx. Instead, the recluse observes the neighborhood through binoculars. (His nickname among the local kids is ”Window.”)
Forrester keeps a particular eye on Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a neighborhood kid who displays special talent on the basketball court across the street. But Jamal hides other gifts: He’s a budding writer who never travels without a selection of small notebooks at the ready in his backpack, and when school tests reveal that his aptitude is off the charts, he’s recruited by an elite Manhattan prep school.
The boy from the hood meets the hermit upstairs on a dare to break into the place and boost a souvenir. But it isn’t long before the secretive author of one perfect book is tutoring the would be thief in advanced writing skills — and Jamal is scraping the crud of isolation off his cantankerous mentor like so much waxy yellow buildup.
”No thinking! That comes later! Write your first draft with your heart!” the old coot roars at his student, who sits in Forrester’s musty apartment typing on a Real Writer’s clickity typewriter. The bachelor’s idiosyncrasies include a fondness for drinking frequently, dressing in striped pajama pants and a leather jacket worn Mr. Rogers style as a cardigan, and watching ”Jeopardy!” on televisions stacked one over the other like a Nam June Paik installation.
But ”Forrester”’s biggest indulgence is in sounding like Sean Connery, laird of the Bronx. Tinkling ice cubes in his liquor glass, the actor luxuriates in rich characterization. ”Shocks are badly deezhigned,” he pronounces about footwear; as Forrester he also intimidates, breaks down while remembering his dead brother, and does a version of Al Pacino’s HOOahhh speech from ”Scent of a Woman.” And the success of Connery’s fancy theatrics is directly dependent, in turn, on the amazingly poised, unforced performance of the entirely natural, compelling, untrained 16 year old Brooklynite Rob Brown as Jamal.
There are moments in ”Finding Forrester” when the thrill of teaching, and learning, and being deeply understood by another human being, blazes with a clarity I never saw in the pieties and platitudes of ”Good Will Hunting.” Then again, there are secondary stories and characters of silly uselessness.
When the director fetishizes the author’s world (all those leather bound volumes in his library, the good inherited oil paintings on his grimy walls) or Jamal’s (must it be raining, must a car lie in flames, in the Bronx at night?), ”Finding Forrester” contracts to the proportions of an average fairy tale about recognizing the genius in each of us, finding our authentic swing, and God bless us every one.
But when the movie conveys the light in a student’s eyes, and those of his teacher, at the moment when knowledge has been shared, it’s a story that can never be told often enough.