It's easy enough to grouse that Gus Van Sant's "Finding Forrester" returns us to a place we've visited before. Van Sant took us there three years ago with his much-lauded "Good Will Hunting," in which the unlikely relationship between a gifted-but-troubled student and his mentor inspired the learning of untold life lessons.
"Finding Forrester" travels a similar path. Sean Connery turns in excellent, autumnal work as the grumpy William Forrester, a brilliant novelist who (in the J.D. Salinger mold) cranked out one bona-fide classic before mysteriously deciding to call it quits, and now offers only grudging glimpses of his personal life to others. Rob Brown, a Harlem-born kid with zero previous acting experience, is a real find as Jamal Wallace, an African-American teenager whose passion for literature and creative writing runs as deep as his love of basketball. He's not quite sure where he fits in.
Van Sant built his reputation on more ambitious and provocative fare ("Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho"). But "Finding Forrester's" finely crafted visuals, acting, direction and narrative momentum show such sophistication that the seamless storytelling (the script is by newcomer Mike Rich) can't be ignored.
"Finding Forrester" introduces another element, that of interracial relationships -- the one between Bronx neighbors William and Jamal, and the one between the aspiring writer and a pretty female student (Anna Paquin) at the upscale Manhattan prep school to which he's been granted a scholarship. The black/white issues, including an assumption by one professor (F. Murray Abraham) that the sports-minded Jamal can't possibly be as bright as his writing indicates, are handled delicately. Stereotyping and condescension are kept to a minimum.
Connery and Brown are masterful in their one-on-one scenes, burrowing deep into their respective roles as outsiders who slowly gravitate toward engagement in a sort of mutual support society. Jamal is looking for a father figure, someone to point him in the right direction. And William is seeking a lifeline to the world at large, a place he more or less abandoned years ago.
Van Sant should be lauded for taking on a movie that places such a high premium on the life of the mind -- on the act of reading and the art of writing. Is there another film in recent memory that has dared to make its characters vitally interested in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain and Samuel Coleridge? And could it be that the teens and young adults in the audience, some raised on a 24/7 diet of TV, music videos and movies, will go home and crack open an actual book? Maybe Van Sant is acting as subversively as ever, after all.