Troubled teenager Joshua (Josh Hutcherson) wanders into the affluent community of Carmel, California. Abandoned by his drug addict mother he fends for himself and soon lands in trouble with the law. However, shady art gallery owner Everly Campbell (Alfred Molina) discovers Joshua has an uncanny artistic talent. He offers the boy a place to live along with a chance to earn a living forging rare paintings he then sells to clueless millionaires for outrageous sums. In the meantime, Joshua sparks a fraught romance with the beautiful Amber (Hayden Panettiere) and befriends Anne-Marie (Lauren Bacall), a wealthy and enigmatic old woman who believes he could have a more promising future than as an art forger.
Inspired by director Lawrence Roeck’s own childhood experiences, The Forger is partly a love letter to the picturesque California coastal region of Carmel. It also has a strong connection with the area’s most famous resident and one-time mayor: Clint Eastwood. Roeck was an Eastwood protégé, brought on board to direct the documentary The Eastwood Factor (2011) after a career spent directing a string of snowboard movies that were supposedly well received by fans of the sport. He also directed the pilot episode of a reality TV show called Lucky Punks (see what they did there?) detailing the efforts of Clint’s then wife Dina Eastwood to manage vocal group Overtone who came to perform on the soundtrack to Invictus (2009). Maintaining his ties to the Eastwood family, Roeck here casts Dina in a substantial acting role as Joshua’s caring social worker while Clint’s son Scott Eastwood plays Amber’s tough yet seemingly endlessly patient and forgiving older brother.
Aside from celebrating the beauty of Carmel, Roeck and screenwriter Carlos De Los Rios touch on some interesting themes. For De Los Rios The Forger marks a return to his roots in character driven fare after a spate of trashy DTV movies including Pirates of Treasure Island (2006) and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (2005). Central to The Forger is this notion of art as a means of opportunity to build a better life. The film revives the hitherto unfashionable concept of art as self-improvement, exploring both the positive and more cynical angles. Everly shows Joshua that art can make big money. Money to buy flash cars, a big house and expensive watches. Through Joshua’s eyes we come to see how crime and art share a strange symbiotic relationship, although despite opening this door Roeck and De Los Rios sidestep the fascinating question of whether the former can be the latter?
Although Everly does not hide the fact he is exploiting Joshua, he proves surprisingly sincere about providing the teenager with the means to earn a living. In his view life is all about mutual exploitation yet still preferable to the path towards “real art”, which is a route plagued by hardship and disappointment. By contrast, Anne-Marie clings to her belief that something pure is still possible even though she hides her own shameful secret. She tries to encourage Joshua to develop his prodigious artistic gifts in a more positive direction and to curb the self-destructive streak that threatens to wreck his budding romance with Amber. The film juggles a lot of plot strands from teen romance to social drama and thriller but while it never exactly drops the ball thanks to Roeck’s solid direction and strong performances from a fine ensemble cast it has some trouble maintaining narrative momentum. It takes a while to get to its point but the film’s quiet, contemplative tone is not necessarily a bad thing and gives the viewer space to mull over its ideas.