As generic as a Christmas tree, Finding Forrester would be pretty disposable if it were not decorated with taste and tenderness by Gus Van Sant. Columbia Pictures’ entry for the holiday season, the film (which opens December 19) is a blatant retread of the Van Sant-directed Good Will Hunting, with Rob Brown, Sean Connery, and Busta Rhymes, respectively, in the Matt Damon, Robin Williams, and Ben Affleck roles.
The star atop this tree is Brown, a Bronx-born, African American teenager who has never acted before. Brown is every bit as commanding as Matt Dillon in Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and nearly as moving as River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (which is still Van Sant’s most idiosyncratic and fully realized film). “Rob came to the preview screening the other night. He walked down the stairs and I’m thinking, it’s like watching Judy Garland in A Star Is Born,” Van Sant softly enthuses. “Because it’s literally happening right now for him, and he’s just a 16-year-old going to school in Brooklyn who wants to study engineering and play football in college.”
Brown was discovered at an open casting call. He was hoping to pick up a little money working as an extra. “When I first met him,” says Van Sant, “I thought, ‘Too handsome,’ and that was what we wanted to stay away from. Someone like Tupac, for example, was handsome but not in a Hollywood way. But Rob has this calmness—what my father called equanimity—about him. And he also has amazing intensity and energy. The clincher was that he could act. He actually gets responses from the audience with his facial expressions. He does all these little movements that are in sync with what the scene’s about. It’s hard to learn how to play those little moments. But he just did it on the first day. No one had to teach him. I guess he just has a good imagination. He’s a true natural.”
The other thing that sold Van Sant on the young actor was how much his background matched that of the character. Brown plays Jamal, an ardent basketball player and gifted writer, who is “discovered” by a reclusive, Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Sean Connery). Like Jamal, Brown is an outstanding student and athlete who attends a private school on scholarship. And, like Jamal, he comes from a lower-middle-class family. The last was extremely important to Van Sant, whose films are distinguished by their sharp depiction of class difference.
If Good Will Hunting was a more honest film for having Van Sant at the helm, so is Finding Forrester (particularly in relation to the young characters). Still, both are disappointments to those who valued Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho. For Van Sant, Idaho is the film in which he had the most at stake, because it’s the only one he wrote himself from scratch. “Kids who are 16 to 25 still watch that movie. It’s a kind of staple, the way The Harder They Come was for me at that age. And Idaho touches them because of River’s performance. He had done a lot of Hollywood movies, but he had never been allowed to rock. His commitment to that role brought the movie very high.”
All of Van Sant’s protagonists are outsiders—but not to the same degree. “The quasi-pederastic grocery-store clerk in Mala Noche, the renegade drug addicts in Drugstore Cowboy, the boy street prostitutes in Idaho—these aren’t characters you’re supposed to be warming up to. In European cinema, they’ve always had these kinds of characters, but in America, your hero isn’t supposed to be a drug addict unless there are so many redeeming factors. In my movies, we weren’t trying to make them look good. But the general audience isn’t prepared to watch something that’s going to confront them in a disturbing way. And then, there are certain things you just don’t show in cinema. Pasolini went a certain distance in Salo. Or there’s what Oshima did in In the Realm of the Senses. But the general audience places all these limitations, and they have to do with why we go to the movies. It’s supposed to be a celebratory thing.”
The new influence on Van Sant’s thinking about these matters is the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. He saw Tarr’s miserabilist masterpiece Satantango this past summer and was knocked out. “I’d never seen a seven-hour movie before, but now it seems viable. It’s amazing to live with those characters for that length of time. I’ve seen a lot of films from that part of the world, and Russian filmmakers like Tarkovsky, but for me, Béla—maybe because he’s my age—brings it all together.” Recently, Van Sant has been trying, without much luck, to get American distributors interested in Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, which he saw at the Toronto Film Festival. “Here we are making these multimillion-dollar films, and Béla, who’s one of the great living filmmakers, is about to have his film taken away by the bank. I feel like just sending him a check.”
Van Sant was thinking about making one of the scripts he’d written and stashed in a drawer when he came across J.T. Leroy’s novel, Sarah. “It would challenge the viewer, not stylistically, but characterwise. Sarah is a 13-year-old, cross-dressing, West Virginia truck-stop prostitute. That’s certainly less palatable than a basketball player from the Bronx. But the book isn’t written in a confrontational way, so maybe there’s a psychological reason I’m assuming it’s something an audience might not want to see. Maybe I’m just afraid.”