Finding Forrester (review)

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Just Forget It

You know those people who have no capacity whatsoever to form memories, so that they have to keep a daily diary just to remind themselves what they did yesterday? That’s the audience Finding Forrester is shooting for. It’s a small demographic, of course, but it’s nice to see filmmakers eschewing the Hollywood blockbuster thing and aiming for a niche crowd.
Granted, targeting a movie at people who can’t remember anything may not be the wisest business decision a filmmaker could make — why bother to show them a trailer or a TV ad if they can’t follow up on it by remembering to buy a ticket for the film? But we should expect nothing less than so wild an experiment from director Gus Van Sant, whose past works include the brilliant satire To Die For and the compelling drama My Own Private Idaho. This is an artist who dares to court ridicule from critics and audiences, as he did with his shot- for- shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. So, when he presents us with a film like Finding Forrester, sure, most of us are going to scoff, “This is a paint- by- numbers knockoff of his own Good Will Hunting, which he gave us only three years ago!” But that’s like a grownup complaining that Pokemon: The Movie is boring or a non-geek bitching about how stupid The Phantom Menace is. It’s not meant for you. Can’t you just let the poor brain-damaged folks have their nice movie? Sheesh.

Yes, it’s true that we’ve all seen all of those Hallmark Hall of Fame television movies in which a wide-eyed youngster teaches a crotchety old crank the true meaning of Christmas/Easter/love/friendship/puppies. Yes, it’s true that we’ve all seen every Very Special Episode of Growing Pains/The Brady Bunch/Providence/ER/Touched by an Angel in which someone reaches deep inside himself (and for ER, I mean this metaphorically) and discovers an inner whatever to overcome an unexpected something. But those people whose brain cells are short-circuited, they don’t know they have. And therein lies the unmitigated genius of Finding Forrester: you can make even the hoariest clichés utterly fresh again if only you direct them at the right audience.

Jamal Wallace (Robert Brown) is an Underprivileged Black Kid from The Bronx who is Really Good at Basketball and is Smart but doesn’t want his friends to know it. William Forrester (Sean Connery: Entrapment, The Avengers) is an Ornery, Reclusive Writer and White Person who hasn’t let anyone see his work in years. (Try to make your mind a blank slate for Van Sant’s full intended effect… Good. “The Bronx” still feels like effective shorthand for “wrong side of the tracks,” doesn’t it? “Reclusive Writer” doesn’t automatically conjure up the images of dusty books and old typewriters that it otherwise would, does it? Ahhhh. It feels like opening a Tupperware container that’s been in the back of the fridge for three months and discovering the tuna fish is still good.)

A fancy Prep School in Manhattan gives Jamal a scholarship based on some test grades, where he meets Rich White Girl Claire (Anna Paquin: Almost Famous, X-Men), her Bigoted Father Who’s on the School Board (Michael Nouri), and Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham: Star Trek: Insurrection, Mimic), a writing teacher. Jamal is not only Smart but Talented, and the writing he does under William’s tutelage makes Crawford Jealous, because Crawford is a Failed Writer. (Remember that you are trying not to remember, so no comparisons to Abraham’s Salieri character from Amadeus, okay?) Also, the Rich White People really only want Jamal for the school’s faltering basketball team, because Rich White People are Bigots.

Meanwhile, William, who was Wounded and Heartbroken long ago, is starting to come out of his shell thanks to his new Friendship with Jamal.

Directors frequently return to themes they’ve explored previously — in both Contact and Cast Away, for instance, Zemeckis looks at the human aversion to loneliness and the need to reach out to another intelligent being, albeit from very different approaches. Do you think it’s just an accident that Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting not only deal with the same overarching ideas but do so in the exact same way, through nearly identical characters? No, sir. Finding Forrester is Van Sant’s daring attempt to prove that sports clichés, teacher/student clichés, black/white clichés, rich/poor clichés, writer clichés, and fish- out- of- water clichés are only clichés if you know they are.

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