After his interesting if misguided sojourn into Psycho-remake land, director Gus Van Sant returns to the feelgood factory that made Good Will Hunting such an Oscar-friendly hit with this heart-string-twanging tale of race, friendship, creative endeavour and personal expression. And while Sean Connery may well be the producer and the ostensible star, newcomer Rob Brown is the revelation.
As the quietly confident 16-year-old Jamal, Brown is so impressively naturalistic he shows up the former 007, his open face and soulful manner illuminating his character's inner conflict. A total novice, Brown's star-making turn is the film's heart and soul.
Van Sant deftly handles their burgeoning friendship and the ever-changing face of the relationship. Initially one-sided with the elder Forrester, a gruff, cantankerous old man who likes a drink, teaching his young protege not only the mechanics of good storytelling but how to connect to the soul of his writing, the teacher-pupil dynamic is soon reversed, as Jamal becomes the mentor, bringing Forrester out of his self-imposed exile.
But this is by no means perfect. The script, by first-time scribe Mike Rich, is predictable and all-too-regularly dips into syrupy cliché with F Murray Abrahams' suspicious, bitter English teacher, for example, little more than a two-dimensional caricature who brings to mind his role in Amadeus.
Fans of of Van Sant's bitingly satirical To Die For may despair at his soft touch, resulting in an insidious sentimentality which occasionally threatens to undo the film, but there's enough of what made Good Will Hunting so compelling to carry it through. This was never going to be anything too controversial or radical, and what ultimately shines is Brown's truly outstanding ability.
While it's anchored by an excellent debut turn from Brown (who easily blows Connery off the screen), this is perhaps too sentimental for its own good. That said, it never fails to engage and there's a surprise cameo to.