Upon further meditation . . .


Sometime after Gus Van Sant had released “Goodwill Hunting,” he took a trip to India. During his stay, he was faxed a screenplay from Sony Pictures. Written by an unknown anchorman called Mike Rich, “Finding Forrester” had everything that prompted Van Sant to cut off his journey and return to LA. Three days later, he was in a meeting with producer Laurence Mark and ready to work.

Sean Connery and Rob Brown in “Finding Forrester”

The obvious question is: Did Van Sant lose his memory in India? “Finding Forrester” is similar to “Goodwill Hunting” in so many ways: the material, the characters and did I mention material? The good news is it’s like meeting a fantastic guy who says: “I have a twin brother. I know you’re going to like him.” The movies are indeed wonderfully similar yet subtly different, in the way twins are.

It looks as though Van Sant and Sony Pictures were confident enough to risk sure-fire criticism about “Finding Forrester” being a rehash of “Goodwill Hunting.” Perhaps the director just believes that a truly good story is truly good, no matter how many times you tell it. Or maybe he’s a perfectionist who felt the previous work had some kinks that could be smoothed over in this new work. In any case, it worked. “Finding Forrester” is not an outright repetition nor a sequel but a Plan B execution that’s even better than the original Plan A.

It’s also a movie with special appeal to the Oriental frame of mind. This is not to say that an Asian character appears at crucial intervals, spouting Confucian wisdom . . . far from it. (Actually, there’s not an Asian in sight.) It’s to say that the defining mood is calm and detached, with a sense of being a part of the world but not immersed in it. The dialogue is often mindful of a Zen session in which questions and answers don’t always correspond, as if it mistrusts verbal language as a vehicle for communicating the meditations of the mind. The drama is never exaggerated, expressions are kept well in check, there’s no sex or violence or thunderbolts of adrenaline. “Finding Forrester” is the cinematic equivalent of a wicker chair, a rock garden and a summer breeze.

The backdrop is the Bronx, where 16-year-old Jamal (Rob Brown) lives in a tiny apartment with his long-suffering mom. Jamal is a wiz at street basketball and popular among the local black kids, but he harbors a secret: He is a voracious reader. In Jamal’s room are stacks of the best literature in the world, and he keeps a journal for private writings. Soon, a scout from a posh Manhattan school comes around and promises him free tuition plus a glorious future, if he will continue to excel in his studies and lead the school basketball team.

One day, on a dare, Jamal breaks into the apartment of a man who is rumored to have never left the building for 40 years. It turns out that this man William (Sean Connery) had been watching Jamal dribbling on the street court for years and knows something about writing to boot.

After accidentally leaving his backpack in the apartment, Jamal’s private journals become filled with William’s critiques in red ink — all valid and in perfect sync with Jamal’s own thoughts. Finally finding a mentor and a friend of the spirit, Jamal begins to spend all his free time in William’s apartment, where they write, talk and read from the vast collection of musty first editions. Acting on William’s advice, Jamal decides to attend the school in Manhattan and finds William’s portrait hanging in his literature class. William Forrester was actually a famous writer who won the Pulitzer with his first novel and mysteriously disappeared.

Though some memorable moments are provided by F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus”), who once again plays a man with the ability to recognize talent but who has none himself, and Anna Paquin, as the object of Jamal’s affections, there is no doubt that the picture belongs to Connery and the amazing Rob Brown.

The latter signed up for the movie audition when he discovered that the part called for a “bright, brainy black kid who also plays basketball.” Brown decided they were looking for him, and he was right. He has a wonderful knack for dealing with both triumphs and adversities with the same deep calm and unshakable serenity. As someone says to him in the movie: ” …and you’re only 16 years old. Amazing.”