The Film: 4/5
In 1997, the prolific independent filmmaker Gus Van Sant earned his first Academy Award nomination for directing Good Will Hunting. The next year he nearly depleted the clout the critical and commercial of Good Will brought him with the ill-advised shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece Psycho. In need of a comeback, Van Sant took on a script by first-time screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie) that shared several of the themes (including the working class genius reluctant to reveal his intellectual talents to the world) and plot points of his Oscar-adored earlier film and fashioned into a rich and heartfelt acting showcase for silver screen icon Sean Connery (whose unmistakable visage dominated the theatrical poster, Zardoz-style) and newcomer Rob Brown, who would later go on to recurring roles on the television series Treme and Blindspot.
Brown was plucked from anonymity to play the central role of Jamal Wallace, a 16-year-old high school student in New York who spends his free time playing basketball with his friends and secretly nourishing his dreams of being a great writer. His test scores reveal a brilliant student who could very well have a promising future if only he would apply himself more in his classes, and he gets the chance for that future when an illustrious prep school offers him an academic scholarship to attend their institution. Although the school’s chief administrators make it clear from the beginning that mostly want him to attend based on his skills on the basketball court, Jamal takes the opportunity to further his writing ambitions under the tutelage of the haughty professor Robert Crawford (F. Murray Abraham).
However, there isn’t much that Crawford, a man possessed of extraordinary arrogance but deep down bitter at having failed to show the world the masterful author he long imagined himself to be, can teach Jamal. There is an old saying – most likely apocryphal, but possibly Buddhist – that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Then again, maybe that quote originated with Mary Kay Letourneau. Anyway, this is where Connery’s character comes into play. Van Sant wisely cast Connery, a wonderful actor who often wasted his talents on high-dollar Hollywood dreck, as reclusive author William Forrester. For many years, Forrester has lived in quiet seclusion in a top floor apartment after dazzling the world with his one Great American Novel, Avalon Landing, and apparently calling it quits. When Jamal breaks into Forrester’s apartment on a dare from his friends, a fascinating student-mentor relationship is born that eventually blossoms into a full-on friendship with several important life lessons learned along the way.
If I make Finding Forrester sound cliched and old-fashioned, that’s because it really is, but I still found it to be less manipulative and far more entertaining than the overly-parodied Good Will Hunting. Perhaps that’s because literature always interested me more than mathematics. Forrester was released at the end of a year where, having nothing at all unique to offer moviegoers intoxicated on the limitless cinematic possibilities offered by films such as Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, couldn’t help but be ignored by the masses. Van Sant’s tender ode to unlikely but loving friendships and the eternal power of the written word was a modest box office hit and the critics all seemed to rally around its emotional and intellectual pleasures, but it failed to net a single Oscar nomination or display the sort of qualities that would ensure a healthy shelf life at the time. Neither Connery or Brown were recognized for their stunning performances, and Forrester happened to be the last time the screen legend gave a single shit about an acting career that was permanently put on ice following the disastrous reception of 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Brown is quite a find based on his feature acting debut, successfully internalizing his character’s various struggles with conviction and always finding new ways to dig further beneath the skin of Jamal to see what makes this tormented kid occupied by good intentions tick. The film’s more grandiose dramatic moments are evenly split between the Oscar winners Connery and Abraham. The latter actor plays up the pomposity of his upper class writing teacher eaten up inside by his own unrealized dreams until his performance stops short of crossing the line into the dead zone of one-note camp theatrics. On the other hand, Connery is simply marvelous in one of the acting highlights of his legendary screen career. Basing the character of the reluctant literary giant William Forrester on the elusive and brilliant author J.D. Salinger, Connery is convincingly aloof and haunted at the start, and the careful dismantling of the shell Forrester has spent most of his life constructing is accomplished with true warmth and honesty through the actor’s powerful performance and the authenticity of the chemistry he shares with Brown. The scenes these two share are without a doubt the dramatic highpoints of Finding Forrester.
On the other hand, the supporting cast Van Sant surrounds his lead actors with is a mixed bag in terms of how they fare on screen. Anna Paquin (True Blood) is fine as a fellow student with whom Jamal strikes up a friendship, but for some reason - perhaps Columbia Pictures got cold feet at the prospective of an interracial love story – their bond is cut loose from the narrative before it had time to fully develop. Rapper Busta Rhymes makes good use of his limited screen time as Jamal’s caring older brother Terrell and he even gets have a brief but effective scene with Connery during the third act that functions as a motivating event for getting Forrester active to help his friend and protégé. April Grace (Magnolia, Whiplash) impresses as one of Jamal’s supportive teachers. Smaller but noteworthy turns are also contributed by Stephanie Berry (Girls Town), Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire), Glenn Fitzgerald (The Sixth Sense), Michael Nouri (The Hidden), and Fly Williams III (Freedomland) as Jamal’s friend. Alison Folland of Van Sant’s classic 1995 dark comedy To Die For cameos as a contestant on Jeopardy, and another very well-known past collaborator of the director makes a surprising appearance in the final scenes.
Van Sant shot most of the film in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx (with some footage filmed later on in Ontario, Canada) and the “voodoo of location” (as I once heard it referred to in an interview with filmmaker Jeff Burr) really permeates every frame of Finding Forrester, capturing the remarkable beauty of the crumbling buildings and street corner basketball courts and the music and rhythm of the bustling downtown streets of the city that add texture and personality to the central story. A traditional orchestral music score was eschewed in favor of a quietly pulsating soundtrack spilling over with jazz classics from Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter and an eclectic score composed by the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Carl Orff’s delicately effective composition “Gassenhauer” (most memorably employed as the primary theme in Terrence Malick’s directorial debut Badlands) is used to underscore a crucial moment in Forrester’s decision to return to the world he had long ago abandoned, and it is beautiful to behold.
Finding Forrester has been presented on Eureka Entertainment’s Region B Blu-ray release in a 1080p high-definition transfer accurately framed in the film’s original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. I have no idea if this transfer was taken from a new master prepared by Sony or it was a simple upgrade of a preexisting master, but the evocative cinematography by the great Harris Savides (Zodiac) really shines through in the quality of this picture. The color scheme is limited mostly to darker and cooler shades of gray, brown, and blue and the spectrum is bolstered to eye-pleasing perfection. Thanks to a balanced and modest grain structure, texture and detail look their absolute best, with close-up shots exhibiting authentic skin tones and the production design by Jane Musky (Raising Arizona), including Forrester’s cluttered apartment, looking lived-in and true to life. The dialogue and jazz-heavy soundtrack are the main beneficiaries of the 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track since this film doesn’t place an emphasis on action, but the ambience of the city streets and the bustling activity at the basketball games are more than adequately represented on this channel. Eureka has also included a 16-bit English LPCM 2.0 stereo track and an isolated music and effects track presented in LPCM 2.0 audio. English subtitles are provided as well.
The bonus features were all ported over from Sony’s 2001 Region 1 DVD release and nothing new was produced for this edition by Eureka Entertainment. We get an HBO First Look promotional making-of featurette (15 minutes) from around the time of the film’s original theatrical release, the short doc “Found: Rob Brown” (12 minutes) about the actor’s journey to making his big screen debut, a pair of justifiably deleted choir scenes (8 minutes), and the original theatrical trailer. A Region 2 DVD copy has also been provided.
Finding Forrester may appear to have a lack of originality, but while the story itself is old hat, director Gus Van Sant and stars Sean Connery and Rob Brown liven up a staid narrative with soul, spirit, and smarts. Region B Blu-ray consumers might find Eureka’s release of this unjustly forgotten gem of old-fashioned drama and technical ingenuity a tantalizing proposition on the strength of the film and the first-rate picture and sound quality. The modest smattering of supplements help sweeten the deal. Highly recommended.