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
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.
~~ Jules Brenner