Film Scouts Reviews

"Finding Forrester"

by Jonathan Robert Muirhead

Gus Van Sant tells here the story of Jamal, a young black kid living in The Bronx, with an exceptional talent, for writing, who lives for basketball. When he's playing, this weird old guy's always watching him from his window. Like Jamal, we can only wonder who this weirdo is, and then the ball comes our way. He's William Forrester, borderline alcoholic and sociopath.

He's also written Avalon Landing "the great 20th Century novel", his only novel. Forrester becomes a mentor to Jamal when Jamal's school test results mean he's accepted for a public school. The tension on the basketball court, where the camera becomes a player, is contrasted with the tension between Jamal and Forrester.

Van Sant amps up extras' background conversation, giving a sense of community, of Jamal's winning or losing being absolutely central. Everyone's talking about him. IT also makes the silence all the more chilling in the scenes between him and Forrester. There's no escaping Forrester's influence. Van Sant contrasts the steely grey of the Bronx Basketball courts with the colourful vibrancy of Forrester's apartment. There's a very convincing interplay between Jamal and Forrester. These two have much to gain from each other. F. Murray Abraham's Robert Crawford deluges his students with academic outpourings on great literature and all other manner of topics Forrester despises. Forrester can connect with his student, Crawford thinks they're privileged to receive his wisdom.

Then Jamal enters his classroom and challenges him. Abraham expertly conveys the character's burning sense of failure. The first half has a documentarian feel, with the alternation between fast action on the basketball court and slow contemplation in the scenes between Jamal and Forrester. The second half is more story-driven Jamal's school writing competition goes from being a far-off contemplation, to being the central narrative drive. It looms over the first half in the exercises Forrester sets Jamal to help him start to realise his potential, but with the film being set over the course of a year, the momentum starts to pick up as time gets shorter in the second half.

Frustratingly, this is at the expense of Jamal's relationship with Anna Paquin being developed into significance. This is the film's one weakness. Other directors of similarly themed films such as The Wonder Boys display a tighter grasp on numerous story strands than Van Sant does. But his creation of an almost real world, where Sean Connery is a literary genius, is very impressive. Uncharacteristically burned out, Connery is for once successful in making us believe he's someone other than a millionaire movie star. Rob Brown is equally impressive as Jamal, whose thirst for knowledge and unstoppable drive provide the film's engine. There's also a very good analysis of the writing process in Connery's outpouring on "coffee shop reading shit".

It's refreshing to see a film where the protagonist's family support him rather than opposing him. F. Murray Abraham's Robert Crawford is a wonderful creation, with an almost justifiable dislike of Forrester. The scene where he and Jamal fight each other with quotations in the classroom is electrifying. Anna Paquin is very good, as the female student, carrying a torch for Jamal. More scenes between these two characters would have been nice, as their few scenes together highlight superbly their attraction and their differences. However, overall, this is a superbly assured and enjoyable film.

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