There is nothing more appealing to watch in a movie than one character teaching another, except perhaps when two characters teach each other. This reliable formula is well presented in this fine film about two great writers, one who has not published anything for nearly half a century and one who is 16 years old.
A mysterious character lives in an inner-city high rise. Known to the neighborhood as “The Window,” he has never been seen to leave the apartment, and the local teens are curious about him. Jamal (Rob Brown) accepts a dare to enter the man’s apartment. The man surprises him, and he races out, leaving his backpack behind.
The next day, the backpack is thrown out the window, and Jamal finds that his private journals have been extensively marked up with comments, ending with “Where are you taking me?” Jamal has never shared his writing or his intellectual curiosity with anyone. All his friends know is that he is a good basketball player. Jamal goes back to “The Window” to ask for more comments, and, very slowly, a friendship begins. It turns out that “The Window” is William Forrester, author of one of the greatest books of the 20th century, who has not published a book since the first one won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. He is a recluse, with no communication with the outside world beyond his window, his television, and delivery of groceries by his publisher.
Meanwhile, Jamal’s test scores bring him to the attention of a posh private school, which offers him a full scholarship, though they expect more from him on the basketball court than in the classroom.
Some of the students at the new school are friendly, especially Claire (Anna Paquin). But a teacher named Crawford (F. Murray Abraham) suspects that Jamal’s work is not his own, and when Jamal embarrasses him in class, he accuses Jamal of plagiarism. The only one who can defend him is a man who has not left his apartment in decades.
The strengths of this movie are its themes and its performers. Newcomer Rob Brown is up to the level of the Oscar-winning trio (Connery, Paquin, and Abraham) who appear with him. In addition to the pleasure of seeing Jamal and Forrester spar with each other, teach each other, and support each other, there is the guiltier pleasure of those moments, in which Jamal takes off his Clark Kent/boyz in the hood disguise and lets his Superman intellectual energy and prodigious reading skewer those who dared to have preconceptions about him. There are a couple of scenes that recall that supremely satisfying moment in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen pulled Marshall McLuhan out from behind a theater sign to refute the man who had been pontificating about McLuhan’s theories. The theme of a character whose true value and genius is not seen by those around him is a recurring theme in stories with a lot of appeal for teens, who often feel that way themselves.
There are also scenes of real loyalty and connection, not just between Jamal and Forrester, but between Jamal and his brother (rapper Busta Rhymes in his best performance yet) and between Jamal and Claire.
The movie’s primary weakness is its climax confrontation, which is artifically constructed and unsatisfyingly unrealistic. Forrester’s explanation of his decision to withdraw from the world and his decision to change is weakly handled. Jamal may be just a little too perfect. And a brief in-joke appearance by a big star is distracting.
Parents should know that the movie has brief strong language and sexual references and situations (Jamal’s neighbors have loud sex on the other side of his bedroom wall). Forrester says that women will have sex with anyone who has written a book. Jamal and Claire take their relationship very slowly and show a lot of respect and concern for each other. Forrester drinks a good bit, and talks about a character who died in a drunk driving accident.
The movie raises a lot of great issues for family discussion. Why do Jamal and Forrester hide their talents? How does the fact that both have lost family members provide an important connection for them? Why is it important for us to find people who can teach us? Why was Crawford so angry, and do you agree with Forrester’s comment about “bitterly disappointed teachers?” What prejudices are revealed by the characters? Do you agree that “people are most afraid of what they don’t understand?” Family members should also talk about Forrester’s advice that the first draft is written with the heart, the second with the head, and might want to try his technique for getting started on writing. They might also like to read some of the books Jamal talks about. And (note the way I started that sentence with “and” per Jamal’s comments on the subject) every teen should read “Catcher in the Rye” by famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger, the inspiration for the Forrester character.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Powder,” about another teen with extraordinary powers and “Field of Dreams,” another movie with a character based on Salinger. Mature teens will also like “Good Will Hunting” (very strong language and sexual situations) by the same director, also about a brilliant young man from a poor community.