Reflections on "Finding Forrester" (2000)

Written by Mike Rich

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Starring Sean Connery, Rob Brown and F. Murray Abraham

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

This is a story of friendship (arising from dubious beginnings and circumstances), evolution and principle set in the Bronx and extending to a prestigious school in Manhattan. This gentle drama focuses on character development and relationships, with a relatively restrained and realistic conflict used as a dramatic device to provoke reflection and growth in the two principal characters.

16-year-old Jamal Wallace has a raw writing talent not hampered by his relatively impoverished social background, though his abilities could be honed and developed with focused tutelage of quality. Jamal has concealed his talent for and desire to write, jotting down his thoughts and observations in a series of notebooks he carries around with him in a backpack. Indeed, he has concealed his academic abilities in general, gaining no more than average grades in assessments. However, he does well in national testing and is offered a place at the prestigious Mailor-Callow school where he will encounter support, discipline, academic demands and privileged competition.

Jamal has learned to use his sporting prowess in the field of basketball as a means of achieving acceptance, success and communication. Mailor-Callow is, of course, happy to offer Jamal an academic education in exchange for sporting success, along with the attendant publicity and glory such success will bring them. Apart from displaying skill on the basketball court itself, Jamal uses a basketball almost as a prop, bouncing it regularly as a means of maintaining reassurance or to divert attention. He even bounces the ball during a conversation with his mother who appears to be incapable of exercising influence over his behaviour. It is interesting to note that later in the film, when he starts to act similarly in a conversation with Forrester in his flat, Forrester sees through his device instantly and brings Jamal's diversionary tactic to a halt with a single look.

William Forrester is the author of a much-loved, highly praised and enormously successful book but apparently never wrote another and has led a reclusive life since shortly after his book's publication.

We discover, after a number of conversations with Jamal and considerable soul-searching, that Forrester was profoundly affected by the death of his brother followed by, in the space of some five months, the deaths of both his parents. We learn of Forrester's trauma and the key to his reclusiveness when Jamal invites him to a baseball game but the outing goes horribly wrong. Forrester fails to cope with crowds and the social encounters associated with such an event and he collapses, triggering a recounting of the circumstances surrounding his brother's death and the catastrophic effect this had on Forrester and his attitude to life. Having made his brother's post-war experiences the focus of his highly successful book, exploring his situation, feelings and the deterioration of his health, the loss of his only brother in a road traffic accident for which he feels in good part responsible, had a devastating effect on Forrester's outlook and the conduct of his life, leading to social anxiety.

These feelings were exacerbated by the fact that a nurse caring for his brother at the time of his accident wished to discuss Forrester's book and its significance to her rather than deal with the death of his brother. This seems to have triggered something of an existential crisis in Forrester, possibly prompting doubts concerning the value of art (in the form of his book), and perhaps his fame as its author, and questions as to how his work could take priority over reality. He appears to have been desperately disappointed in people if they are capable of casting aside understanding, compassion and interest in others and their genuine experiences for what amounts to a copy of life or an abstraction. This may have led to his rejection of the status of a famous author whose position derives from the work he has produced rather than his character, beliefs and actions.

Like most good writers, this intelligent and sensitive man (despite appearances) is adept at reading character and understands motivations, purpose and thought processes, as Jamal learns in his initial meetings with him, meetings in which Forrester is testy and provocative, but also insightful. Due to his trauma and his subsequent rejection of society, he is untroubled by the desire to be accepted or popular, especially as the continued success of his book provides him with the means to live while writing (though not necessarily publishing) provides him with stimulus and satisfaction. He rarely leaves his flat, preferring to insulate himself against the dangers, insecurities and disappointments of the world outside. Yet he continues to observe life outside, rather than participate in it, cleaning the windows regularly to ensure clarity of vision. He has preserved a natural curiosity and social intelligence which he has satisfied through surveillance of the local area by way of powerful binoculars and a video camera which enabled him to become vaguely acquainted with Jamal even before the dare from Jamal's friends and his consequent breaking into Forrester's home.

Forrester cannot hold himself back from reacting to the pieces of writing he finds in Jamal's bag which he left behind in panic when Forrester disturbed his tentative and furtive exploration of Forrester's flat. Their common bond of writing paves the way to friendship as they explore common curiosity, abilities and backgrounds, leading to shared thoughts, feelings and even affection, and then a willingness and desire to play a part in one another's lives, to the point where one friend is willing to put the other's interests above his own.

They have much in common:

Both are inspired to write due to family traumas - for Forrester, it is the return from war of his distressed brother and his descent into alcoholism and, for Jamal, there is the struggle with drug addiction of his father, the disintegration of his parents' relationship and his father's eventual departure from the family home.

Jamal hides his writing, scribbling in notebooks kept in a backpack, while Forrester keeps his writing hidden in a file in his flat.

Both use writing as an outlet for their feelings and a method of understanding and coming to terms with the world around them.

Family is essential to each of them. Jamal is clearly emotionally close to his mother and brother, even if he does not share his literary aspirations with them, while the loss of Forrester's family had a catastrophic and deeply emotional effect on his life.

The fact that neither of the main characters has left his familial roots or neighbourhood may also be worthy of note. Each of us is deeply influenced by our background and family, and although ability and opportunity may lead to changes in circumstance and geography, our hearts remain tied to "home". This may explain why one of the production companies listed in the film's credits is "Fountainbridge Films", undoubtedly named after the area of Edinburgh in which Sean Connery was born and raised.

Our two main characters are drawn together by writing and shared character traits and circumstances. Almost despite himself, Forrester recognises Jamal's potential and offers him advice, while Jamal recognises the value of what is on offer and wants more. And so, Forrester becomes Jamal's mentor.

Comparisons may be drawn between the teaching Jamal receives at Mailor-Callow and the mentoring undertaken by Forrester.

According to Jamal's new friend Claire, teachers at Mailor-Callow are fonder of hearing their own voices than hearing those of their students and this is confirmed by our encounters with Robert Crawford, Jamal's English Language tutor. He appears to take pleasure in vaunting his own knowledge and in so doing implies the relative ignorance and inferiority of his students, demoralising them in the process. His purely knowledge-based and lecturing approach to teaching is far more restrictive than the mentoring approach adopted by Forrester which depends on engagement. Although knowledge is incorporated, emphasis is laid on the fluid exchange of ideas and discussion, allowing the evolution of the student and quite possibly the teacher too, if he or she is open to it.

Jamal's skill in basketball opens a pathway to acceptance and achievement in society. He is literally following the rules, playing the game and building a career and a place in society through developing his skills and putting them at the use of others. However, Jamal's writing is where his true aspirations lie. Through his writing he can express himself and give value to his own thoughts and ideas, leading to his independence.

There comes a point where he must make a choice between the two pathways. After entering a writing competition, Jamal is accused of plagiarism and faces possible expulsion from school. His piece was indeed partially inspired by an article written by Forrester but Jamal went on to make it his own, though he retained the original title. Forrester happily recognises it is Jamal's own work and is probably proud of the fact he exercised some influence in the development of the piece, but Forrester has asked Jamal to remain discreet about his identity and so Jamal will not reveal the source of his inspiration, leaving him in this difficult position in the school.

Certain authorities at the school are willing to use this situation to apply pressure to ensure sporting success, assuring Jamal his problems will disappear if he gains victory for his team and his school in an upcoming match. Of course, acceptance of such conditions could lead to perpetual blackmail so Jamal chooses the pathway of principle and shows he is willing to abandon a burgeoning career and education to protect the identity of his mentor and inspiration while insisting his writing is his own work.

Though he initially refuses to defend his friend because of the impact such action would have on his life, Forrester is forced to re-assess the direction he has allowed his life to take and the values by which he has been living. Because of his friendship with Jamal, the influence Jamal has exercised over him and the rediscovery of humanity Jamal has kindled in him, Forrester realises he must conquer his social anxiety, sacrifice his anonymity and appear in public to support his friend. After all, Jamal's problems have come about as an indirect consequence of their friendship and he is facing life-changing repercussions due to his willingness to protect Forrester.

As suggested in the title of the film, Jamal found Forrester and that find changed his life. Sharing and developing his thoughts and aspirations with a kindred spirit gave him strength and confidence and allowed him to value his own efforts as an individual. Jamal was already a thinker but his relationship with Forrester not only helped evolve his talent but encouraged him to remain true to himself.

It is also true that Forrester re-found Forrester. Through sharing his love of writing, observation and thought with Jamal, Forrester also learned to share his innermost feelings, emotions and fears, allowing him to rediscover humanity, the warmth of friendship and a taste for life.

In the end, we discover that Forrester has died and has left his flat and its furnishings to Jamal. He has also left in his care a final novel for which Jamal is to write the foreword, completing, in a sense, his mentorship of Jamal.

At the heart of the plagiarism debate was the question of copying, but Forrester inspired Jamal through his writing and his counselling to produce his own work, thus encapsulating the means and purpose of art - to observe, consider and express ideas in order to inspire similar thoughts or ideas in others.

Jamal becomes not just Forrester's friend and mentee but also his heir. Forrester bequeathed to Jamal all his worldly goods but also, and perhaps much more importantly, the essence of his writing spirit.

This is a film to which I can return again and again, and I consider that quite an accolade.

Writer Mike Rich and director Gus Van Sant created a slow-burn character piece that is entertaining, engaging, touching and thoughtful. The principal characters and their development are the stars here and the evolution of their friendship is logical, sensitive and emotive.

Rob Brown, making his debut at just 16, had a daunting task but coped remarkably well, giving a mature, rounded and natural performance.

F. Murray Abraham, totally controlled and self-assured, did his usual excellent job and made you dislike his superior, condescending and at times oily Robert Crawford.

Sean Connery, in what is almost certainly his penultimate film role, gives one of his best performances as the crusty yet vulnerable Forrester. Indeed, the multi-layered nature of his performance plays a pivotal part in the re-watchability of the film. Various aspects of the role may have resonated with him and Mr Connery is engaging, affecting and at times quite moving.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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