THE SCREENING OF "Finding Forrester" I attended was introduced by a "personality" (as I believe they're known) from the popular Portland-area morning television show "AM Northwest". The woman charged with this unfortunate duty (usually the purview of annoying radio DJs) related that she used to work at KINK FM 102 alongside Mike Rich while he toiled away on the screenplay that became this film.

She told us the unlikely success story of Rich, an unpublished writer who submitted his screenplay to a nationwide competition. It won, and soon he became the embodiment of a Hollywood tale that could have been written by Horatio Alger--Finding Forrester was actually made into a film starring Sean Connery. In addition, our hostess noted, another anyone-can-succeed tale could be witnessed in the form of Rob Brown. The 16-year-old non-actor who won the lead role in the film at an open casting call is now being mentioned in the early mumbles of Oscar talk.

In all this Mike Rich hoopla though, Ms. AM Northwest neglected to mention the film's other Portland connection, who happens to be the main reason it turned out to be a success. His name is Gus Van Sant; you might have heard of him. He directed the movie, and he did a bang-up job.

This isn't meant to denigrate the remarkable tale of Rich's entrée into the Dream Factory. The story of "Finding Forrester" is serviceable enough, if reminiscent of too many other movies. The above-mentioned amateur, Brown, plays Jamal Wallace, a black high school basketball star from the Bronx who's also a closeted writer. He befriends a shaggy, white recluse (Connery) in his rundown neighborhood who begins to tutor his artistic ambitions.

When Jamal's test scores earn him a free transfer to a private Manhattan academy, culture clash predictably takes hold, despite the friendly assistance of an attractive fellow student (Anna Paquin). His mentor turns out to be William Forrester, the Salinger-esque author who published the Great American Novel 40 years ago, and then fell off the face of the earth. However, he's bound by a promise not to tell anyone about Forrester, so the connection doesn't do him much good when a nasty teacher (F. Murray Abraham) takes it upon himself to wreck Jamal's world.

All this comes to a head during the weekend of the state basketball championship, so that Rich's screenplay can manage to incorporate aspects of films as disparate as Hoop Dreams, School Ties, Dead Poets Society, and, most blatantly, Van Sant's own Good Will Hunting: the academic prodigy whose destiny lies beyond the humble, familiar surroundings of his youth, and his relationship with a troubled, bearded mentor that changes them both forever.

Finding Forrester is saved from sliding into a deadly bog of oozing sap by two things. First, the complete absence of Robin Williams is a great boon to the picture. Second, the directorial restraint that Van Sant demonstrates gives the illusion that the plot is rooted in something close to the real world, even though, upon close examination, it clearly is not.

There are innumerable instances where the music and direction could have attempted to artificially induce extra emotion, but Van Sant seems to understand that the audience can be trusted to feel when feeling is warranted. These days, that's practically a revolutionary concept. It's especially helpful for Brown, who isn't asked to attempt any real acting throughout.

Here's the prediction: Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, maybe Best Cinematography, and, just for the story behind the story, Best Original Screenplay. Here's another prediction: Van Sant will not follow up this critical and box-office winner with a shot-for-shot remake of The Birds.