Back to School Month: "Good Will Hunting" Review

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Matt Damon and Ben Affleck co-scripted and star in this drama, about rebellious 20-year-old MIT janitor Will Hunting (Damon), gifted with a photographic memory, who hangs out with his South Boston bar buddies and his affluent British girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver). After MIT professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) stumps students with a math formula on a hallway blackboard, Will anonymously leaves the correct solution, prompting Lambeau to track the elusive young genius. As Will's problems with the police escalate, Lambeau offers an out, but with two conditions -- visits to a therapist and weekly math sessions. Will agrees to the latter but refuses to cooperate with a succession of therapists. Lambeau then contacts his former classmate, therapist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), an instructor at Bunker Hill Community College. Both are equally stubborn, but Will is finally forced to deal with both his past and his future.
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Back to School Movie Month: "Good Will Hunting" Review

Rating: R (strong language, including some sex-related dialogue)
Length: 126 minutes
Release Date: January 9, 1998
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Genre: Drama

Will (Matt Damon) is a young man from a seedy Boston neighborhood who is quite content to work laying bricks the rest of his life with best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck). Together, they drift aimlessly through life, starting trouble, and occasionally getting arrested for fighting. They seem like any other ruffian until it is revealed that Will is actually a genius with a photographic memory and the ability to solve complex mathematical problems.
When a math professor at Harvard named Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) catches Will, while on break from his job as a janitor, solving yet another complex problem meant for high-level students, he looks into Will's past. Seeing his genius, he takes Will under his wing and tries to help him get his life on track, including some much-needed counseling, but Will is having none of that. He easily dispatches one shrink after another with his insolent behavior, which prompts Lambeau to look for old friend Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Much like Will, Maguire is a smart cookie who didn't use his talents the way he should have. He is also from a similarly underprivileged background, so the two bond over their hardscrabble lives, and Will eventually opens up to him.

Meanwhile, Will meets and begins falling in love with the beautiful Skylar (Minnie Driver), a British woman who sees something good in him. Eventually, Will pushes her and Lambeau away, and it is up to Sean to try to convince him that he is worthy of Skylar's love and Lambeau's tutelage. Will thinks he deserves to go back to construction jobs with Chuckie, who finally confides that as much as he'll miss him, Will needs to stop wasting his talent and do something extraordinary with his life. Now if Will could just convince himself that he is worthy of such a life, he might get a happy ending.

Up until he directed "Good Will Hunting," director Gus Van Sant had helmed a slew of thought-provoking short films, as well as "Drugstore Cowboys" and "My Own Private Idaho." His penchant for quirky characters and dialogue was quite well known before he took on this film, which seems to lack his signature quirkiness. Some questioned how well Van Sant would fare directing a mainstream film from a big studio, but he silenced those naysayers by producing a fantastic, affecting film. There are definite signs of Van Sant's trademarks here, including the climactic scene between Williams and Damon where some fairly brilliant dialogue gives Will the emotional release he needs to move on from his past. Instead of a big standoff or fight scene, the climax is a quiet, weep-worthy discussion, which is right up Van Sant's emotional alley. This was really the perfect film for him to direct in order to get a foothold in mainstream moviemaking because it straddles both indie and mainstream values deftly, never fully embracing either one.

Damon and Affleck were childhood chums from a tough Boston neighborhood, much like the characters they portray in the film. There are some obvious parallels between their characters and their real-life selves, but this is not an autobiographical film. In fact, the story isn't a wholly original one; the tale of a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who is wasting his life away before falling for the rich girl is not a new one. What makes "Good Will Hunting" feel so original is the way the story unfolds and the quality of the dialogue in all of the really important scenes. These characters talk their way through life, daring the audience to pay close attention and follow the narrative. In particular, Will's takedown of a snooty college student in a bar and the scene where Sean puts a highfalutin' Will in his place regarding his deceased wife are big highlights with pitch-perfect, memorable dialogue.

All of the dialogue comes from the script by Affleck and Damon, who won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Screenplay. It was a huge splash for two brand-new screenwriters, to win an Oscar their first time out. They went on to have huge acting (and later directing, for Affleck) careers in Hollywood. Still, if one had to look back and determine what their best or most memorable film was, "Good Will Hunting" would have to be at or near the top of that long list. It launched two huge careers and won Williams a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but this film is no mere launching pad. It's a brilliant, fresh take on an age-old story that inspires as much as it entertains.

Rating: 4 out of 5