AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 27th February, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 136 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Reclusive William Forrester lives on the top floor of a building across from a court where 16 year old Jamal and his friends play basketball. One of the boys dares Jamal to sneak into the apartment and retrieve an item, but he’s surprised by Forrester and leaves his backpack behind. Forrester later drops Jamal’s backpack onto the street, and Jamal returns home to find that Forrester has written notes in Jamal’s journals. Jamal returns to Forrester’s apartment and asks him to read more of his writing, the beginnings of a friendship between the crusty William and Jamal, who has just been offered a scholarship at the Mailor Academy a prestigious prep school, due to both his test scores being very high, and the fact that his basketball skills could come in handy for the college team….
For somebody who in his own small way is a writer of sorts [or at least trying to be one], Finding Forrester provided some wise words: “No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You re-write with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”. I can honestly say that most of my better reviews occur when I just sit down and hit the keys as fast as possible without knowing exactly what I’m going to write. Then again William Forrester is full of sage-like wisdom throughout this film. I reckon that anyone who’s been married or in a relationship will at least partly agree that: “The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time”. I wish I had a Forrester at home advising me through life, with of course Sean Connery’s wonderful voice. Finding Forrester was mostly regarded as just a variant on director Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting when it came out, and having finally seen it I suppose I’d agree with that. Again we have an underprivileged youth being discovered by a reclusive genius and shepherded to his full potential, but many directors repeat the same formula, and if it works a second or even a third time around than it’s not really a problem. Finding Forrester definitely works as an absorbing, gentle, heart-warming drama, and the second-to-last movie performance of the Best Bond Ever [sorry Daniel] ranks as one of his best, even if it’s not really much of a stretch!
This was a debut screenplay by Mike Rich, who’s only written four films since, though he was probably inspired by the true story of the teenaged Joyce Maynard taking up with the reclusive and much older J. D. Salinger who also mentored her in her writing, and also possibly by a writer called John Kennedy Toole. He wrote an autobiographical book but, when no one would publish it, he committed suicide in his car. Years later, the book was published and won the Pulitzer Prize [don’t worry, I haven’t given out any spoilers here!!]. Bill Murray was originally considered for the title role before Connery was asked, while Rob Brown, who’d never acted before, originally just auditioned as an extra so he could repay his phone bill. Van Sant noticed him, had him read for Jamal and cast him on the spot. Principal photography was done entirely in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn [many Mailor Academy scenes were filmed at Regis High School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan], with some scenery and pick-up shots made in suburban Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario during post-production. Some footage of housing projects in the Bronx was reused from Q & A. It soon became apparent that Connery could not actually type which explains why you never see his hands in the same shot as the rest of him when he’s typing. Finding Forrester was a moderate success at the box office and was well reviewed but seemed to be forgotten about rather quickly.
An unusual guitar version of the Paramount logo music leads in to a nice montage showing the Bronx environment ending with a kid rapping to camera – though it’s a character who will actually appear in the film a bit later so it does have a point to it. This film is Van Sant well in ‘commercial’ mode rather than ‘arty’ mode. Jamal is first introduced by the huge pile of books he has beside his bed, though this avid reader doesn’t seem to be familiar with the Edgar Allan Poe poem The Raven….but then again he could be pretending not to know it. We’ve all known a show-off in school and probably felt some resentment. Jamal apparently does: “Just enough to get by, and just enough not to stand out”, but his scores tell a different story, and he’s granted a scholarship at a school which also wants to win the annual basketball competition, even though this African American kid from the Bronx – a kid whose drug addicted father left when he was small – is bound to be looked down upon by many there. He soon forms a friendship with fellow student Claire, but their relationship never really blossoms into a full blown romance which I found kind of refreshing. The emphasis is on Jamal and William, the hermit who’s a source of mystery to all the locals….in fact he’s just as much a source of mystery when Jamal gets to know him a bit more: he’s constantly pouring himself whisky, orders all his shopping [though that’s not so odd now!], wears his socks inside out, the only fresh air he gets is when he cleans his windows – and he wrote a best selling and critically acclaimed novel 40 years ago and never followed it up!
The relationship between the two remains frosty for some time even when William decides to tutor Jamal – as long as he doesn’t ask him about his personal life – but you just know that this will eventually change. In fact, there are a lot of familiar elements in this film, but it fascinates throughout, especially in the scenes which are just between tutor and protégé. It helps so much that Brown manages to hold his own with the charismatic Connery, who’s clearly relishing the opportunity to speak lots of literate dialogue. Some may find that these scenes drag on a bit, but I loved them, and felt that the film sometimes went down a notch when it left William’s house. In particular, it begins to bring to the fore a rather unnecessary villain in the shape of a teacher named Robert Crawford who is suspicious of Jamal [in a good example of the film’s restraint, nobody utters any racist comments but there’s an undercurrent of racism both in the classroom and on the basketball pitch], can’t understand why he’s so talented so he automatically accuses him of plagiarism, and who – oh what a coincidence – once crossed paths with Forrester in the past. Still, later developments in the story do increase the drama and a scene at a writing contest may rather move. Some may call it manipulation, but I like manipulation – it’s something which movies often do whatever genre they belong to – even though it tends to be sniffed at by many of today’s critics. The film could have ended about ten minutes before it actually did, but I shouldn’t complain – a few of the old tears materialised.
For the most part though Finding Forrester is a nicely positive, life-affirming work. While Jamal clearly won’t achieve his potential without Forrester’s teaching and pushing, he also begins to give back a life to someone who’d been barely even having one – and yes, we do eventually find out the reasons for him being the way he is. Around the middle of the film, Jamal takes Forrester out for his birthday, and the old guy can’t take being around crowds and only seems to be even slightly relaxed when he’s in an empty basketball pitch. It’s a wonderfully underplayed and subtle scene as Forrester disappoints Jamal by saying he used to go to that pitch countless times and only thanks him afterwards – but it’s really genuine thanks from someone who barely knows how to say it at all. There’s bits of humour throughout that never seems out of place, and Van Sant’s direction is one of his most unobtrusive efforts. There’s some handheld stuff during some conversations as the camera follows and/or circles round characters, but it’s never shaky or claustrophobic like in so many films today, and mostly the direction just lets the story tell itself. Perhaps the most unusual part of the film is its score which often employs tablas as well as some great Miles Davis tracks and that Carl Orff piece that you’ve heard in other films and which was ripped off by that rip-off merchant Hans Zimmer in True Romance. Some of the music does work, but there’s a bit too much of it for a film like this.
Outside of Connery [who according to Van Sant played the role as a homosexual but I can’t see it – can you?] and Brown, Busta Rhymes is good [honestly] as Jamal’s supportive brother, a still-young Anna Paquin shows some nice shades as Claire, and F. Murray Abraham does what he can with his bad guy role. Finding Forrester is one of those films that just falls short of being excellent but is still very good and one of the most sheerly enjoyable pictures I’ve seen from a filmmaker whose work fluctuates wildly from films like To Die For to one of the dumbest and most pointless remakes in cinema history. I liked it alot. It feels honest and warm and reminds us of some important lessons, such as how assumptions can often be false, and how it’s never too late to start actually enjoying life. And how – well, I couldn’t help but stop and think a couple of times during writing this review as Finding Forrester is the kind of film to make one do that – but I did write it reasonably quickly.
Finding Forrester has its debut on Blu-ray in a typically fine transfer from Eureka which isn’t anything showy but then neither is the film. While I’d never seen this film before, colour tones seemed perfect to me and there’s also enough depth to warrant fans of this film to buy on Blu-ray even if they have the DVD, though the special features are all from said DVD. The HBO ‘making of’ is just what you would expect except that it doesn’t have as many behind the scenes glimpses as usual. The Found featurette about the casting of Brown begins by just expanding on what you already know from the HBO, but as it goes on it reveals a few interesting things like Abraham remaining in character during shooting and intimidating Brown! The two deleted scenes are odd – two classroom singing scenes which go on forever. I haven’t a clue where they would have gone in the film. Overall this is a good rather than great release from Eureka but the film is certainly worth a purchase, especially they seem to make less and less movies of its kind today.
DUAL FORMAT SPECIAL FEATURES:
*High-definition presentation, available for the first time in the UK
*Optional English subtitles
*Making of featurette
*Found – Rob Brown featurette
*Original theatrical trailer