Finding Forrester

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EFL Movie Study Guides (for English learners)

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EFL Movie Study Guide for: Finding Forrester



Story: Jamal, a 16-year-old black basketball star, befriends a shy, elderly man (Forrester, played by Sean Connery) who turns out to be a famous author. Jamal’s writing and athletic talent earns him a scholarship to an exclusive private school, but his teachers question whether a black kid from New York could really write THIS well. Meanwhile, his unlikely friendship with Forrester helps both reach their dreams. Themes include the place of sports in education, plagiarism, fear, prejudice, teenage relationships, urban change and English writing.  (2000; actors include 3 Oscar-winners; Columbia Pictures; drama; PG-13; 136 minutes) Director: Gus Van Sant.

Setting: Manhattan and the Bronx, two of the five districts (technically called boroughs) of New York City

Note 1: In scenes with African-American characters, you will see that they don't always speak standard American English. Think of this as an American dialect (地方话; 方言), sometimes called Ebonics or African American Vernacular English. Some of the characteristics of this dialect include:

the use double negatives ("I ain't seen nothing change" instead of "I haven't seen anything change")

omit or neglect to conjugate "to be" ("Why you gonna send him here?" instead of "Why are you going to send him here?" or “he be laughin’ ” instead of “he is laughing”)

drop “l” and “r” (“hep yo-sef” for “help yourself”)

use “d” or “t” instead of “th” (“dis one is wid me” for “this one is with me”)

neglect to show verb tense (“he see us, man” for “he sees us”)

      They also use some nicknames (like "baby," “boy,” "killer," “nigga” or “dog”) that could be considered offensive if used by non-black people. One important aspect of Jamal’s character is that he must be fluent in both his dialect (to fit in with his friends) and in “standard” English (to become “successful” in mainstream society)—see quotation 12. (Similarly, a successful Chinese person needs to be able to speak Mandarin [普通话] as well as his/her dialect).

Note 2: Don’t worry if you can’t understand the African-Americans talking quickly at the beginning of the film; it is sort of like trying to listen to a conversation in Cantonese, when you don’t speak that dialect (see note 1). They are talking about Mr. Forrester, whom they call “the Window” because no one knows anything about him; he often looks out his window but never leaves the building (there is even a rumor that he killed someone many years ago).

Note 3: The characters in this film (and many American movies) cuss and swear  (乱骂?) a lot, saying things like “God,” “Goddamn,” “s-h-i-t”  and “f-u-c-k,” which are particularly offensive to many people (below, I’ve shown them as “s--t” and so on). Script writers often use these terms to show us how angry a character is in a certain circumstance or to demonstrate a lack of education. However, English-learners should never use these terms—in international business or communication, it is especially important to NOT offend others.


A partial preview (to help you understand what you will see). The underlined words are defined in the vocabulary section below.

Jamal’s assessment test shows that he is extremely smart, but his mom says that “all he talks about is basketball” because that is “where he gets his acceptance” among his friends. A private school sees Jamal’s high test scores and offers him a scholarship, hoping he will also play basketball there. Meanwhile, Jamal’s friends dare him to steal something from The Window’s apartment (see note 2); while doing this, The Window (Forrester) catches him and Jamal runs out of the apartment without his backpack, and thus without the notebooks he writes in. Forrester “marks” the notebooks (like a teacher) and throws the pack out the window. Jamal then goes and asks Forrester to “help me with my writing.” At first, Forrester says “no” (very angrily), but he is intrigued by this young man’s talent and eventually agrees. Later, when Jamal starts attending the private school, Claire befriends him (their white/black relationship is also a minor part of this story). But one of Jamal’s teachers (Prof. Crawford) thinks that Jamal may be cheating/plagiarizing, which is a main focus of the last part of the movie. Along the way, we discover that Forrester was deeply hurt when his brother died (while driving drunk), and simply chose to remain isolated in his apartment for decades thereafter. He lives on the royalties from his famous book, and for many years after he wrote it, publishers begged him to write another—which he never did.

You can also find a plot summary at


People and proper nouns:

Jamal Wallace (or J to his friends): a 16-year-old African-American, with a talent for basketball and for writing

William Forrester: a reclusive (隐逸) elderly man. Crawford describes him: “When William Forrester was 23, in 1953, he set out to write his first book. A lot of aspiring authors talked about writing the great 20th-century novel; well, William Forrester did it, on his first try.”

Prof. Robert Crawford: Jamal’s writing teacher at the private school; Forrester describes Crawford in quotation #10 below.

Claire Spence: a rich student at Jamal’s new school, daughter to one of the school’s leaders; she and Jamal like each other

Terrell (or T to his friends): Jamal’s big brother; he had dreamed of “playing college ball” but wasn’t good enough (or maybe didn’t have good enough grades), so now he is a parking lot attendant beside a sports stadium, and he raps

Mailor School or Mailor-Callow School: an exclusive, 100-year-old prep school in Manhattan (downtown New York)

The Bronx: one of the five districts (technically called boroughs) of New York City. I don’t know much about the Bronx, but movies like this one make it look like a place where minorities (black, hispanic, etc) live and work because it is less expensive than other parts of New York.

Manhattan: one of the five districts (technically called boroughs) of New York City; Manhattan has the tall buildings, “Wall Street” stock market, etc., so it is the business center of the city. It is expensive to live there, go to school there, or operate a business there.

Sherlock Holmes: [福尔摩斯] a famous, fictional detective (“Stamford introduced Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson.”)


Nouns/verbs (vocabulary): (*means these are particularly important for English-learners)

*acceleration: describes something that gets faster and faster (“The acceleration in your writing ability is remarkable.”)

*assessment test: a standardized exam or series of exams that helps a school evaluate a student’s academic ability; the results also help the government evaluate the effectiveness of one school compared to another

BMW: Bavarian Motor Works--a German company, who’s expensive cars are often bought so the owner can show off his/her wealth (some people refer to the cars as “beemers”; in the film Jamal tells Forrester’s arrogant lawyer about the history of BMW)

*boys: “my boys” is a Ebonics (see note 1) term for “my friends”

*cancer: a serious and often deadly illness in which the body’s cells stop acting in a normal way (癌症)

constipated: a medical condition where someone has difficulty getting rid of your body’s solid waste (when Forrester marked up Jamal’s notebook, sometimes he wrote “constipated thinking,” i.e., “this section shows that your ability to think is temporarily blocked”)

*to cuss: to use language that offends some people, especially when you are angry (发出诅咒? 咒骂? 乱骂?). Important: remember that using a particular word will offend some people but not others, depending on their level of education, religious beliefs, race, etc. See note 1.

to dare: when sb (esp. a child) challenges another person to do sth dangerous; in this movie, they also call this “the call” (“I dare you to go up there, into The Window’s place, and bring something back.” “Yo, I think I’m going to pull the call [i.e., cancel this ‘dare’]”)

dog: a term some black men use to address a black, male friend (a bitch is a female dog, and some black women use this to address other black women—but “bitch” is a terrible insult if a white person uses it to talk about a black person)

*foul shots: after a penalty in basketball, this is the chance to get a point by shooting the ball from a certain line, without anyone trying to stop you (also called a “free throw”)

*intrigued: to be interested because sth is strange, mysterious or unexpected

*to kick in: to begin to take effect or start working, even though it was already there (“Jamal’s writing gift really kicked in after he met Forrester.” “It took ten minutes for the pain medicine to kick in.”)

*mascot: an animal or “cartoonish” figure that represents a team, squad, etc. (“American football teams normally have mascots like animals, historical characters, and special people who work in the area: bears/horses, pilgrims/Trojans, oil-workers/steel-makers.”)

*plagiarism/to plagiarize: to use a passage, sentence, outline, or even a group of phrases from the Internet, a book, or any other source, without telling where you “borrowed” from. Plagiarism is a crime because it violates the author’s intellectual property rights; in this film, plagiarism (in a writing contest) was treated seriously because it gave Jamal an unfair advantage over students who do not cheat

*prep school (preparatory school): (AmE) a private secondary school that prepares academically gifted (or wealthy) students to enter the best universities. (In BrE, a “preparatory school” is for 6 to 13-year olds, preparing them for boarding school.)

*probation: (AmE) a period of time in which a student or worker must show improvement (in ability) or change (in behavior), without which he will be forced to leave that school or job (“Bear in mind, the school’s Board does have the authority to place those who plagiarize on academic probation, which would prevent you from playing basketball here in the future.”)

*procrastination=delay; waiting to do something because you don’t really want to do it

program: a booklet sold at sporting events, giving details about the players, teams, etc. (“Hold on, let me get a program.”)

tap: (sound of two hard things hitting each other) “She heard a “tap, tap, tap” coming from The Window’s place.”

rap: a type of music in which words are generally spoken in a certain rhythm instead of sung; this is popular among urban young people

*rumors: things people say based on what someone else said, not necessarily based on the truth (流言?)

*scholarship: (奖学金) when someone pays some or all of the educational expenses for gifted students or athletes



1. When you were a child, did you and your friends dare each other to do things? Tell your partner about it. If not, tell your partner about a dangerous event in your life.

2. In different contexts, Jamal had to use Ebonics (see note 1) and “standard English.” If you are an English-learner, you speak more than one language, too. When do you speak each language, and why?

3. Do you think it is unfair for Jamal to have to speak “good English” (or for a Chinese person to have to speak “good Mandarin”) to be successful in his country? Or do you think being able to speak your “mother tongue” (母语) ought to be all you need?

4. Describe the “unusual friendships” in this movie. (Jamal and Claire; Jamal and Forrester; are there others?) Then talk about an “unusual friendship” in your own life.

5. Tell your partner about an older person (a relative, neighbor, teacher, etc.) who has helped you in some way.

6. Jamal merely used Forrester’s title and first paragraph, but his teacher and the school’s Board saw this plagiarism as a serious academic “crime.” Did this surprise you? Why or why not? What do you think about the practice of including the words or thoughts of others in your own writing?

7. The serious attitude toward plagiarism shown in this film is very common in countries where English is a native language. If the attitude in your country is different, explain. Also talk about what this attitude means for people who wish to study abroad or work with people from English-speaking countries.

8. The description of this film says Jamal’s unlikely friendship with Forrester helped both to “reach their dreams.” Explain this statement, or say why you don’t agree with it.


Sentences/dialogs from the movie:

(in part from; imdb's website is a great place to find movie facts and more)

Say these dialogs out loud with your friends; it will help you prepare to watch the movie. Blue parts below are particularly important. The underlined words are defined in the vocabulary section above.

1.   Jamal: Well, I was wondering, maybe I could bring you some more of my stuff… or maybe I could write something else.

      Forrester: How about 5000 words on why you’ll stay the f--k out of my home!

2.   Forrester: Bolt (lock) the door, if you're coming in. (This strange sentence is how Forrester first invited Jamal into his home.)

3.   Forrester: How old are you?

      Jamal: I’m 16

      Forrester: Sixteen! And you’re black. (Forrester looks at Jamal’s essay.) It’s remarkable.

      Jamal: Remarkable? What? It’s remarkable that I’m black? I mean, what does me being black got to do with anything, man?

      Forrester (pointing a knife at Jamal): You don’t know what to do right now, do you? If you tell me what you really want to tell me, I might not read any more of this. But if you let me run you down with this racist bulls--t… what does that make you?

      Jamal [backing away]: I’m not playing this game, man.

      Forrester: Oh, I say you are playing it. An expression is worth a thousand words. But perhaps in your case, just two.

4.   Claire (responding after Jamal says the school leaders want to see how well he plays basketball): It’s just like college, right? You get an education, and they get what they want. Or maybe you both get what you want.

5.   Forrester: Stir the soup before it foams up.

      Jamal: How come ours never gets anything on it? (Forrester takes a video of a bird, which he apparently does a lot.)] Do you ever go outside to do any of this?

      Forrester: You should have stayed with the soup question. The object of a question is to obtain information that matters to us and to no one else. You were wondering why your soup doesn’t foam up? Probably because your mother was brought up in a house that never thought of wasting milk in soup. Now that question was a good one, in contrast to, “Do I ever go outside?” which fails to meet the basic criteria of obtaining information that matters to you.

      Jamal: All right, man. I guess I don’t have any more soup questions.

6.   Forrester (giving the conditions for his continued tutoring): There’ll be no questions about me, my family, or why there was only one book.

7.   Jamal (after Forrester’s lawyer drops off weekly supplies, including new socks): Why don’t you give that guy a break and do your own shopping? And why are your socks inside out?

      Forrester: Because socks are badly designed. The seams are on the inside. Hurt the toes. In some cultures, it's considered good luck to be wearing something inside out.

      Jamal: And you believe that?

      Forrester: No, but it's like praying: what do you risk?

8.   Forrester: Why is it that the words we write for ourselves are always so much better than those we write for others? Go ahead.

      Jamal: Go ahead and what?

      Forrester (now happily typing): Write.

      Jamal: What are you doing?

      Forrester: I’m writing. Like you’ll be when you start punching those keys. (Jamal just sits there for a while.) Is there a problem?

      Jamal: No, I’m just thinking.

      Forrester: No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is... to write, not to think!

      (Jamal can’t get started, so Forrester gives him an essay from his files, entitled “A Season of Faith’s Perfection”)

      Jamal: What’s this?

      Forrester: Start typing that. Sometimes the simple rhythm of typing gets us from page one to page two. And when you begin to feel your own words… start typing them. (Jamal starts to lightly, slowly type a few words; Forrester gets upset and shouts…) Punch the keys, for G--'s sake! (Jamal starts typing faster.) You're the man now, dog!

      (After quite some time, Jamal finishes typing. He starts to put his essay in his backpack but Forrester stops him.)

      Forrester: Jamal, whatever we write in this apartment, stays in this apartment. No exceptions.

9.   (Jamal and Forrester are watching a popular TV game-show where the players choose a topic by saying something like “I’ll take ‘Birds’ for $400, Alex.” Then they see an answer and must give the question. Forrester assumes that Jamal has never heard of a particular writer, and Jamal is a bit offended by this wrong assumption.)

      Jamal (sarcastically): I'll stay with ‘Poor Assumptions’ for $800, Alex.

10.  Forrester: [Prof. Crawford] wrote a book a few years after mine. And all the publishers rejected it, which was the right decision. And instead of writing another one he took a job teaching others how to write. Just keep in mind that bitterly disappointed teachers can be either very effective or very dangerous.

11.  Jamal: What’s hard is growing up in a place where the cops (i.e., police) don’t even want to be after dark. What’s hard is knowing that you’re safe there, because the people you need to worry about know you got nothing to give them.

      Claire: So it’s a good thing you’re here (at Mailor).

      Jamal: Yeah, but these people don’t think I got anything to give them either.

12.  Jamal: I ain't seen nothing change.

      Forrester: You ain't seen nothing? What in the hell kind of sentence is that? Huh? When you’re in here, don’t talk like you do out there.

      Jamal: I was messing with you, man. It was a joke. Go ahead, I want to hear about the neighborhood back when people were still reading your book.

      Forrester: What did you say?

      (Forrester sends Jamal to the public library; if all the copies are already checked out, Jamal has to buy dinner. Jamal loses this bet because all 24 copies have been checked out.)

13.  Jamal: They got some contest at school. This writing thing. [Did] you ever enter one of those?

      Forrester: Writing contest? Once, a long time ago.

      Jamal: Did you win?

      Forrester: Well, of course I won.

      Jamal: [Did you win], like, money or something?

      Forrester: The Pulitzer. (the top international prize for writers)

      Jamal: Oh. Well, they make all the students get up and read in front of everybody.

      Forrester: What the hell’s that got to do with writing? Writers write so that readers can read. Let someone else read it.

14.  Forrester: The key to a woman's heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.

15. Forrester: My brother and I, we were here (at the Yankee baseball stadium) for every game, till he left for the war. I thought it’d be the same when he came back, but he talked a little less and drank a little more. I promised my mother I would help him get through it all. So, I caught up with him this one night; I was already half a dozen drinks behind. So we had a few more. And after a while he tells me he wants to drive me back to the apartment. I said, “No, thanks.” We were all still living there then. I just stood there and watched him drive off. He makes it through the whole g--damn war, and I let him drive (while drunk). Later that night the nurse was typing whatever it is they type, and you know what she tells me? She tells me how much my book meant to her. My brother’s getting cold in the next room, and all she can talk about is a book. Well, everything changed from then on…. We’d spent our summers here, and if we were lucky, the fall (for the championship playoffs).

      Jamal: A lot of falls with those teams.

      Forrester: Yeah. Not enough.

      Jamal: "The rest of those who have gone before us cannot steady the unrest of those to follow." You wrote that in your book.

16.  Prof Crawford (this speech, using rather formal language, is telling Jamal that his teacher thinks he has been plagiarizing): The question concerning your most recent work isn’t whether it’s good. It’s whether it’s too good. The acceleration in your progress from your old school to this one is unusual, to the point that I’m faced with drawing one of two conclusions: either you’ve been blessed with an uncommon gift that has suddenly decided to kick in or you’re getting your inspiration from elsewhere. Given your previous education and your background, I’m sure you’ll forgive me for coming to some of my own conclusions.

      Jamal: I wrote those papers, man.

      Prof. Crawford: Then you won’t mind showing me. The next assignment is due in two weeks. I’ll schedule some time for you to come to my office. I’d like to have you write it there.

17.  Forrester: A lot of writers know the rules about writing, but they don’t know how to write.

18. Prof. Crawford (to Jamal): Perhaps your skills do extend a bit farther than basketball.

      Jamal: "Further"

      Crawford: I’m sorry?

      Claire Spence (to Jamal): Don't...

      Jamal: You said my skills extend "farther" than the basketball court. "Farther" relates to distance, "further" is a definition of degree. You should have said "further".

      Crawford: Are you challenging me, Mr. Wallace?

      Jamal: Not any more than you challenged Coleridge.

      Crawford: Perhaps the challenge should have been directed elsewhere. "It is a melancholy truth that even...

      Jamal: "Great men have poor relations" Dickens.

      Crawford: "You will hear the beat of...”

      Jamal: Kipling.

      Crawford: "All great truths begin...”

      Jamal: Shaw.

      Crawford: "Man is the only animal...

      Jamal: "That blushes, or needs to." It’s Mark Twain. Come on, Professor...

      Crawford (shouting at first): Get out!  Get... out.

      Jamal: Yeah. I'll get out.

19.  (After Jamal embarrassed Crawford in class, Crawford discovered that the title and first paragraph of Jamal’s essay were plagiarized from a published article written by Forrester; Jamal asks Forrester to help him, but he refuses because Jamal broke the rule about not taking essays out of his apartment. They are both mad, and are cussing at each other.)

      Jamal: You wanna (want to) hear the real bulls--t? How about you let me take it on this one ‘cause you're too damn scared to walk out that door and do something for somebody else. You're too damn scared, man! That's the only damn reason.

      Forrester (throws glass against wall and breaks it): You don't know a g--damn thing about reason. There are no reasons! Reasons why some of us live and why some of us don't. Fortunately for you, you have decades to figure that out!

      Jamal: Yeah, and what's the reason for having a file cabinet full of writing and keeping the s--t locked so nobody can ever read it? What is that, man? I'm done with this s--t.

20.  Forrester: My name is William Forrester. (He looks at a wall full of pictures of famous writers, and points at his picture.) I'm that one.

21.  Forrester: I’m thinking you’ll make your own decisions from here on.

      Jamal: I’m thinking you’re about to say something more like, “I always could.”

      Forrester: No, no. No more lessons. But I have a question, though. Those two foul shots at the end of the [basketball] game... did you miss them, or did you miss them?

      Jamal: Not exactly a soup question, is it?

22.  Jamal: Where you off to?

      Forrester: Well, I have a homeland I haven’t seen for too long.

      Jamal: Oh, you mean Ireland?

      Forrester: Scotland, for G--'s sakes!

      Jamal: I'm messing with you, man. Be sure to write.

(Note: this is a clever play on words. “Be sure to write,” meaning “write and send me a postcard,” is a common way of saying that you will miss someone while they are on vacation. In this case, it is also advice from a young writer to an older writer, who stopped “writing” many years ago.)


The film ends with a new version of a famous song about “dreams coming true” from the 1939 classic movie, The Wizard of Oz:


Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high,

And the dreams that you dreamed of, once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,

And the dreams that you dreamed of, dreams really do come true…

Someday you wish upon a star

And wake up where the flowers are far behind

Where trouble melts like lemon drops

High above the chimney tops

It’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,

And the dreams that you dared to… why oh why can’t I…


Then it turns into the classic song “What a Wonderful World.”

See our Website Standards and Use Policy regarding the sources of definitions used on this website.


This resource was created for our students under our understanding of "fair use" for educational resources. 

This page does not imply any consent from or relationship with the publisher(s) or producer(s). 

2008 Michael Krigline. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print/copy it for personal or classroom use.

 (see Website Standards and Use Policy)


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