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Find time for 'Finding Forrester'
An old man, a young man, a timeless tale
(CNN) -- "Finding Forrester" is, at its most basic, a story about an older man mentoring a younger man who is gifted with a great talent -- a talent he hides from the world for fear of not fitting in with his underachieving peers. Therefore, it's not surprising that comparisons to another film with the same premise -- "Good Will Hunting" (1997) -- are being made.
On the surface, this seems valid, especially since Gus Van Sant directed both. Even the star of "Good Will Hunting," Matt Damon, plays a minor role in "Forrester," which only adds to the temptation of blowing this movie off as just another variation on a familiar theme.
But make no mistake: "Finding Forrester" is a different movie with nuances and shadings of character and performance only touched upon in that other film, which won Robin Williams a best supporting actor Academy Award and made the film's writers and stars, Ben Affleck and Damon, not only Oscar winning screenwriters but overnight media sensations.
This time, along comes another Academy Award winner, Sean Connery, and a remarkable newcomer to acting, 16-year-old Rob Brown. It's a whole new ball game. Yes, the territory is similar, and at times maddeningly predictable, but never underestimate the power of Connery's charisma.
Connery plays William Forrester, an eccentric Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who's been a recluse for 40 years, (think J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon). He's written just one book, but his fame has spread far and wide. However, no one in his run-down Bronx neighborhood knows he's the great writer himself, nor have they actually ever seen him. But everyone knows he watches everything from his top story window. He's an oddball who's become a legend.
Brown plays Jamal Wallace, an African-American teenager who is extremely intelligent and a highly gifted basketball player. But he hides his academic abilities from his friends in fear of being rejected as an intellectual snob.
On a dare, Jamal breaks into Forrester's apartment but leaves behind a book bag full of his writings, only to find them later in Forrester's Hallway, with corrections and comments attached.
Then fate intervenes when Jamal is recruited by an elite Manhattan prep school. He's been chosen not just for his writing skills, but also for his prowess on the basketball court. Jamal knows it, which further alienates him from his rich, white classmates. The only fellow student who reaches out is Clair, played by Anna Paquin.
Frustrated Jamal turns to Forrester for help with the confusing turns his life has taken. After all, Forrester had been one of the few people to take the time to look at his work and consider his writing seriously. Slowly, the boy and the man begin to trust each other.
Of course, the dramatic trade off here is that Forrester helps the boy deal with the academic world, while Jamal brings Forrester back into the world of reality which the author rejected decades before.
Kudos to acting, script
Yes, this is a blatant feel-good movie, and it seems to be a strange choice for Van Sant, who made his reputation as an edgy, indie type who brought us "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989) and "To Die For" (1995). For those who think this is just a rehash of "Good Will Hunting," be grateful that Van Sant didn't do a word-for-word remake of that earlier film, as he did with his dreadful retread of "Psycho" in 1998.
"Finding Forrester" is not a great movie, but the interaction between Connery and Brown, and the astute direction of Van Sant, does make this film an entertaining diversion.
Brown is tailor-fit for the role. He really is from New York, does play basketball and attends a private school in Brooklyn for which he was recruited due to his academic skills. But all of that would be meaningless unless he could go toe-to-toe with Connery. He does.
This script from first-time screenwriter Mike Rich is occasionally uneven, but there is some great dialogue between the leading characters.
In fact, Brown is not the only overnight successes involved in this production. Rich's script was one of five finalists in the Don and Gee Nicholl writing competition sponsored each year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. With that exposure, his script was picked by my Laurence Mark Productions and the rest, as they say, is history.
It's nice to see a film where reading and writing are treated with such respect, and no matter how clich-ridden it may be, and no matter how simplistically "high" its high concept is, "Finding Forrester" is still a rare find, one that high schoolers and their parents can enjoy.
"Finding Forrester" opens nationwide Friday. Rated PG-13. 136 minutes.
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