CINEMA SIGNALS Cinema Signal:

. "Finding Forrester"

It may not be the Best Film of the Year, but I think I've just seen my favorite film of the year (2000). This is a character driven film about writers, a genius or two, and standing out through realizing one's potential. Despite its setting in the projects of The Bronx, New York, some elements of sentimentality creep in, but there are so many rewards in it, this is a minor carp.

Jamal Wallace, a black teenager (Rob Brown, in his film debut, after answering an open casting call flier) is dared by his basketball playing chums to visit the strange mystery man (Sean Connery) who spies on them (through spyglasses) from his third floor window in a 19th century building overlooking the court. The boy, an outstanding student in literature and writing, as well as a superior basketball player, enters the apartment late one night, egged on by his comrades, and thinking he can look around while the old man is asleep. His objective is to capture a trophy to prove himself but when the reclusive inhabitant of the apartment awakes, he runs for his life, leaving his knapsack behind.

In it are his writing journals as well as the letter opener he lifted as the trophy. Days later, after displaying the knapsack in his window, the man throws the knapsack to the ground as Jamal is crossing the street. Later, going through his belongings inside it, he discovers that his journals have been critiqued with comments about the writing.

Liking this informed attention to his work, he returns to the apartment to enlist the recluse to critique more of his work. Rebuffing, challenging and insulting the young writer, the man eventually is sufficiently impressed by Jamal's writing to accept him into his apartment, one which is dark and filled with books. Step by step, a mutual respect is developed and a friendship, if not mutual dependence, is realized.

Meanwhile, Jamal's English grades are brought to the attention of an exclusive private school and they offer him a scholarship, both for academics and perhaps more for his abilities on the basketball court. He is the great black hope for success in their league. Happily, he is to have it both ways, developing the dual parts of his interests and abilities. As though that weren't enough to bring joy to his heart, the lovely Anna Paquin is chosen to be his guide on his first day in school.

The demanding and pedantic Professor of English, (F. Murray Abraham, in a role not far from his Solieri in "Amadeus", 1984) assigns a book to his class -- one written by a William Forrester who published only this one book in his lifetime despite the fact that it won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Jamal soon realizes that this author is his erstwhile mentor and writing teacher.

Troubles develop when the stern English Professor disbelieves that the work Jamal is turning in on assignment is actually his. "It's too good". What follows is a test of integrity and a test of his friendship with his mentor, who doesn't go too far out of his way to provide him any easy resolutions to his dilemma with his professor.

This is a story that makes many connections across the behavioral and cultural spectrum. It covers intellect, athletics, interracial relationships, scholastic endeavor and more. Much is made, in films, about the problems and conflicts of a racially and economically disparate society -- mostly negative. This one fits the better side of reality by championing the victory of the mind and inner spirit with race and economics playing a secondary role in the outcome.

The cast is well chosen and completely up to the material. A 69-year old Sean Connery is his usual vital self (last seen being "Entrapped" by Catherine Zeta-Jones), perhaps pumped up a bit by the splendid screenplay and his role as co-producer. Anna Paquin is good in an unchallenging role. And, there's a brief cameo appearance by an actor everyone knows but who doesn't appear in the credits. His role also harks back to a previous character he played in an unforgettable picture. Gus Van Sant, in a return to filmmaking after his 1998 debacle, "Psycho", directed, nicely modulating the dramatization to the subject matter. If he's trying to recreate his image, "Finding Forrester" is a splendid vehicle.

Noteworthy is the fact that the script by Mike Rich won the Motion Picture Academy's Nicholl Fellowship and was bought by Sony Pictures following that win. Rich used to be the news director of KINK FM in Portland, Oregon.

I suspect this film won't get the attention it deserves, but perhaps the Connery following will bring it wider success than such subject matter is likely to enjoy given its emphasis on accomplishments of the mind. It does offer sports and other, more popular attractions, after all. It's also likely that it will gain the attention of the Motion Picture Academy and a nomination by them will make it an important contender. Let's hope. After all, "Good Will Hunting" found its mark. This is no less an achievement.

Estimated cost: $43,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $48,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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