At the start of Finding Forrester, a glimpse of a clapper-board introduces a poetic prologue: a street rapper describing the South Bronx, accompanied by an appropriate montage of views.
Once that's over, you can say goodbye to the Gus Van Sant of old (epitomised by My Own Private Idaho, 1991). Despite the ubiquitous, moody presence of Miles Davis and other jazz artists on the soundtrack, Finding Forrester is Van Sant's most mainstream film – even more so than Good Will Hunting (1997).
But it is time for critics to stop bemoaning this apparent sell-out to Hollywood convention, because this movie is infinitely preferable to his atrocious remake of Psycho (1998).
It would be hard to find a cornier, more formulaic piece. It is essentially a two-hander. William Forrester (Sean Connery) is a recluse who once wrote an acclaimed novel in his youth, but has since withdrawn into silence. A local schoolboy, Jamal (Rob Brown), discovers him and begins to break down his defences.
Jamal is an aspiring writer, so Forrester starts tutoring him. His teaching method is an infectious combination of bullying, derision, encouragement and sly charm. Connery – who is also co-producer – has the time of his life with this terrific, show-off role.
Finding Forrester is a shameless display of cheap emotion – and it works surprisingly well on that level. Mike Rich's script does tend to lose sight of Jamal's life away from his personal master; a school romance subplot is particularly cursory. But once the film locks in on the bad guy of the piece – wicked literary academic Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) – the rising arc of conflict is assured.
Many Van Sant films seem to be exercises of some sort – opportunities for him to develop a certain aspect of craft or exaggerate one particular element of style. Finding Forrester may be a relatively impersonal project for him, but it allows him to take great strides in the direction of actors. The blending of old pro Connery and newcomer Brown is beautifully achieved.
It is hard to believe that the person who started his career with downbeat, disconcertingly amoral films about society's misfits is now churning out efficient feel-good vehicles. This rousing tale of self-improvement, struggle and personal dignity may be light years away from the universe of William Burroughs or Larry Clark (prominent Van Sant collaborators of old), but that doesn't mean we should be cynical about its virtues.
© Adrian Martin March 2001