By Scott Brown
Updated April 24, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Finding Forrester: George Kraychyk

There’s a great scene halfway through Finding Forrester wherein Jamal (Rob Brown) and Claire (Anna Paquin) play a flirtatious game of one on one, happily neglecting to call touch fouls. Jamal is black and brilliant, plucked from the ghetto to play basketball for a posh Manhattan academy; Claire is white and well heeled, the daughter of the school’s dean. You know where this is going. And then? it doesn’t go there. Nobody makes it to the hoop. Nobody even drives.

And so it goes. Unconsummated provocations course through ”Forrester” the way testosterone injected self-righteousness did through ”Good Will Hunting,” director Gus Van Sant’s other ”unlikely genius” fable. Again, Van Sant marshals his substantial talents for atmosphere and characterization, not to mention a fantastic eye for mystic cityscapes. Again, he takes a schmaltzy mentor – protégé yarn — Jamal is a writing prodigy from the projects, William Forrester (Sean Connery) the local Salingeresque recluse — and lends it a painterly elegance it probably doesn’t deserve.

And again, the results are pleasant, if lacking the puerile exuberance of ”Hunting.” There’s something muted here, and it’s not just Brown’s poker face emoting. At one point, Forrester clucks admiringly at Jamal’s scribblings, ”[Why, you’re only] 16,” then adds nastily, ”And you’re black!” Jamal gasps, and so do we. Of course, the old man’s only joshing, and so is the movie. But in that brief, ugly moment, there’s just enough honest drama to make us ache for more — only to find that beneath the tease lies cheese.