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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Good Will Hunting (review)

He’s a Brainiac, Brainiac…

My favorite part of Good Will Hunting is the story behind it. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon pounded out the script while sleeping on friends’ couches, then refused to let it be made unless they starred in it. One would think that would be enough motivation to get me off my procrastinating ass and finish that novel (If those two whippersnappers can write an Oscar-winning screenplay…), but I doubt it will be.

Good Will Hunting is the somewhat conventional story of Will Hunting (Damon), an untutored genius from the wrong side of Boston who works as a janitor at MIT (a job his parole officer got him). When he solves a mathematical problem posted on a blackboard — one none of the graduate students can touch — he catches the attention of Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgärd), a prize-winning mathematician and MIT professor. When Will is arrested yet again (for assault, after beating up the guy who bullied him in kindergarten), Lambeau arranges for Will to stay out of jail if he works on his math with the professor and agrees to see a therapist. After exasperating a handful of shrinks, he runs up against Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), whom Will can’t scare off.
Nicely directed by Gus Van Sant (this is probably the most mainstream movie from the man who made To Die For and My Own Private Idaho), Good Will Hunting is mostly notable for the maturity and insight of a script written by a couple of twentysomethings. Will’s history of abuse at the hands of foster parents has taught him to keep emotional distance from everyone. But Sean, whose life has had its own ups and downs, points out to Will that for all his book smarts and street smarts, he won’t really be participating in the world and in his own life until he lets other people in. Damon and Affleck were clever enough to create a kind of Amadeus/Salieri relationship between Will and Lambeau, the older man jealous of the younger’s easy genius. And Will’s relationships with his best friend, Chuckie (Affleck), and new girlfriend, Skylar (Minnie Driver), resonate with a depth that unfortunately few other movies approach.

Good Will Hunting could be seen as an oblique commentary on the way our society deals with gifted children. Will, of course, is miles above “ordinary” gifted kids, but he’s in the same situation. While mentally or physically handicapped children receive special instruction — as well they should — the very smart are left to fend for themselves — even programs for the gifted rarely involve more than extra work, not work specially geared to smarter kids. Why was Will’s genius unrecognized except by his friends? Did no teacher he ever came across at school see his potential? If not for his little encounter with the MIT blackboard, Will probably would have gone through his whole life as little more than a fun little freak show for his friends, a walking encyclopedia.

Gifted kids are left to pull themselves up by their bootstraps — hell, they’re smart enough. But adults forget that they’re still children. They need some guidance from caring adults in order to figure out what to do with themselves.

Just like Will Hunting did.


viewed at home on a small screen

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