Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:13 - Released 12/19/00

A movie about being a writer offers us an interesting perspective into the mind of its author. Finding Forrester, a film about a young man whose talent brings him in contact with an unlikely mentor in the most unlikely of places, is the first feature film screenplay written by Mike Rich, an Oregon radio news director who obviously has some literary aspirations of his own. It is directed by Gus Van Sant, who received a Best Director Oscar nomination for 1997's Good Will Hunting. Rich's text and Van Sant's direction mesh very well together, bringing the author's commentary about race relations and true creativity onto the screen with an important sense of integrity in a field known for empty glittering, featuring a nice turn by Sean Connery and a surprisingly natural performance by young newcomer Robert Brown.

In a story with some similarities to Hunting (including a surprise cameo by Matt Damon) but which bears an even stronger resemblance to Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys, a 16-year-old Bronx school kid named Jamal Wallace (Brown), who happens to be known for his talent on the basketball court, is recruited by an exclusive private prep school after he receives exceptionally high scores on a standardized test. However, Jamal soon learns the school administration's true motive: after losing several players to graduation, they are looking to restock the basketball team. Although he is a voracious reader and shows great talent in his writing, Jamal is not taken very seriously by his arrogant professor, failed novelist Henry Crawford (F. Murray Abraham).

But Jamal's life is turned around when he becomes friends with a reclusive old man living in the apartment building overlooking his neighborhood basketball court. The man turns out to be William Forrester, whose fame for his novel, Avalon Landing, is surpassed only by his fame for having produced only that one novel. Forrester is well-respected in the writing community; his book even appears among the assigned reading in Prof. Crawford's class. But Forrester, living as a recluse under an assumed name for decades in his Bronx apartment, makes Jamal promise not to reveal his identity. In return, he helps the boy hone his talent to the point where Crawford is forced to question whether Jamal is in fact writing his own material.

In this film, director Van Sant blends the streetwise style one finds in Spike Lee movies with the author-ish content of Rich's engaging story to make a pleasing experience, but one not cloying or manipulative. His choice of music, incorporating many titles by master jazzman Miles Davis and some interesting updates of "Somewhere, Over The Rainbow" (yes, you heard right), as well as original pieces by Bill Brown, add interesting texture. Lastly, there are the performances. Connery is certainly more than adequate, but such is expected from the likes of him. It is teenager Brown who stands out. His delivery is quiet, subtle, and at many times monosyllabic, and one is not sure whether this is part of his characterization or simply his own way. But occasionally he gives Jamal a warm, exquisitely human quality that betrays his ability to rise above the otherwise low-key style. Also on hand in supporting performances are rapper-turned-actor Busta Rhymes as Jamal's brother Terrell, April Grace as his strong but supportive mother, and Anna Paquin as the sweet and affectionate Claire, the symbol of the unattainable world Jamal sees through the glass of racial separation. A moving, meaningful story. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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