January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

Sean Connery, Rob Brown, F. Murray Abraham, Anna Paquin, Busta Rhymes

Early on in Finding Forrester, the camera pans up a stack of well-thumbed paperbacks by literary heavyweights like Chekhov and Kierkegaard, pausing momentarily on James Joyce’s autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is just such a portrait that Forrester, a likable but hokey drama, works hard to create.

The young man who has slogged his way through this tower of Great Works is Jamal Wallace (Brown), a somber 16-year-old living in a Bronx housing project. He begins an unlikely friendship with a misanthropic neighbor (Connery) who shares Jamal’s love for reading and writing. The teen learns his new pal is William Forrester, a reclusive novelist who published a single, Pulitzer-winning book back in 1953. Why has Forrester stayed silent and why doesn’t he have any family or friends? In the months that follow, Jamal slowly discovers the answers as Forrester, in coaching sessions conducted in the older man’s cluttered apartment, advises Jamal on writing and on how to handle himself at a snooty prep school.

Forrester must seem like déjá vu for director Gus Van Sant, who here ably covers much of the same territory he probed in Good Will Hunting, his hit 1997 film about a young genius and a wise older man. Forrester is both better and worse than Hunting; it doesn’t have the one-hug-solves-everything mentality of the earlier film, but it also lacks Good’s slacker humor (though a crackling debate between Jamal and Forrester over starting a sentence with a conjunction is amusing). Connery has his gruff good-guy act down pat and seems, after such time wasters as The Avengers and Entrapment, actually to be enjoying himself. Brown, a newcomer, holds his own opposite the Scotsman, a mighty achievement. (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Finding a keeper

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