Novice actor Rob Brown stars as Jamal Wallace, a 16-year-old black kid living in a Bronx housing project. At first Jamal seems no different from his buddies -- a likable kid, obsessed with basketball, with few prospects for escaping the quicksand trap of urban poverty. But Jamal has a secret: He's a genius. With a photographic memory, an overwhelming curiosity and a talent for writing, Jamal spends all his spare time devouring volume after volume of literature and trying to create his own. He knows that this makes him an odd duck, and he so cherishes his friendships and his sense of belonging among his peers that he deliberately does mediocre work in school rather than blow his cover as just one of the guys.
His ruse can't last forever. His standardized test scores show that he's performing way below his ability; this attracts recruiters from the city's poshest private school. But a stranger happenstance upsets Jamal's carefully constructed secret: On a dare, he breaks into the apartment of a local recluse (Sean Connery), who spies on the street through binoculars but has never been seen to leave his apartment. This mystery man has become an urban equivalent of Boo Radley; generations of neighborhood kids have built up a body of spurious urban legends about who he is and why he never shows his face.
During the break-in, Jamal leaves behind his book bag. The next day, as he walks by the apartment, the book bag is thrown back down to him. He discovers that not only has nothing been removed, but something has even been added. The recluse has read Jamal's journals and stories and has peppered them with comments, criticisms and suggestions.
Jamal convinces the man to help him with his writing, and after a while Jamal realizes just whom he's dealing with: William Forrester, who won a Pulitzer at 23 with his first novel, then disappeared and never published another book. (Though the correspondence isn't perfectly point for point, Forrester is pretty clearly inspired by J.D. Salinger.) To honor his promise to Forrester, Jamal has to keep their friendship an even stricter secret than his own genius. And we know that sooner or later this secrecy is going to cause Jamal problems at his new school, where a pompous, vindictive teacher (F. Murray Abraham, at his most effectively loathsome) is out to prove that no black kid from the Bronx could write this well.
Do the general outlines of all this sound a little familiar? Can't we find something similar in Van Sant's filmography?
Certainly there's not much here to remind us of his earliest -- and best -- efforts: the low-budget Mala Noche (1985), which immediately made it clear that he was a born filmmaker; the nearly perfect Drugstore Cowboy (1989); and My Own Private Idaho (1991), flawed but still marked with Van Sant's idiosyncratic touches. But seemingly craving broader acceptance, he moved on to the catastrophic Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) and the interesting, but less striking, To Die For (1995), before hitting the mega-big time with Good Will Hunting (1997), a film that gave him the clout to do whatever he wanted.
"Whatever he wanted" turned out to be one of the strangest, most pointless projects of all time, a clone (1998) of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, redone in color with different actors. Now, with Finding Forrester, he has produced a near-clone of Good Will Hunting, redone with actors of a different color. In fact, this is a double clone: It recapitulates Good Will Hunting in its story, and by that very fact, it recapitulates the 1998 Psycho in its intent. Only this time Van Sant is duplicating himself instead of a dead master.
Why would he want to do such similar material after a mere three years? For the most part, it seems like either a totally perverse concept or a cowardly run for a commercial safe harbor. Having said that, it should also be noted that fans of Good Will Hunting will probably love Finding Forrester. It's an improvement on its model. Billy Wilder, when told that Universal was making yet another Airport movie, once remarked, "Of course! And they're going to keep making it until they get it right!" And that may be Van Sant's strategy here: to keep making Good Will Hunting until he has the perfect version.
In fact, Finding Forrester is in every way a good movie -- maybe even better than good. But it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Van Sant is losing his individuality in the name of saving his bankability.