(I originally published this film review of “Good Will Hunting” in the Australian Jewish News in early 1998. I am reprinting it in honour of the recent passing of Robin Williams.)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard and Minnie Driver
What happens when two former Cambridge, Massachusetts acting classmates decide to collaborate on a script about their hometown of Boston? The result is “Good Will Hunting”, a remarkable first script by up and coming actors Matt Damon (“The Rainmaker”) and Ben Affleck (“Chasing Amy”). But there is more. Damon and Affleck also star in the film in the parts they conceived for themselves.
Damon plays Will Hunting, a 20 year old orphan who has suffered through years of abuse and neglect in a series of foster homes. Will is tough, cocky and full of rage, but also has one special characteristic: he is a total genius, completely self-taught, with a photographic memory and the capacity to compete with top international mathematicians and scientists. Affleck plays Will’s best friend Chuckie, wise enough to recognise his friend’s genius, but unlikely to rise out of their working class Irish South Boston surrounds.
Will is brought to the attention of prize-winning Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard, recently in “Amistad”) after Will solved a famous theorem during his evening rounds as a cleaner at MIT. After Will has been arrested for assault, Lambeau convinces the judge to let Will out of jail under the condition that he work with MIT mathematicians and undergo weekly counselling. Lambeau is determined that Will fulfill his intellectual potential, and chooses his old friend psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a teacher at Bunker Hill Community College, for Will’s therapy. Maguire and Lambeau have a long history, and it turns out that Sean also has a few hurts of his own to deal with.
From this interesting set-up, director Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy”, “To Die For”) is able to develop a deeply entertaining story which works on many levels. At its most basic, this is a tale about breaking through emotional barriers and allowing oneself to care, at the risk of being hurt. You live life by experience, we are told. Yes, we have heard this before, but these simple truths are made more meaningful by Will’s romance with English heiress (and fellow orphan) Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard student. Driver (“Circle of Friends”, “Grosse Point Blank”) has never been more luminous. But “Good Will Hunting” achieves something extra special through its delicate but straightforward approach to American social class, contrasting the uneducated South Boston youngsters with the elite Harvard and MIT students across town, cleverly playing on the iconography of American academia. (Damon, by the way, studied at Harvard: it takes one to know one.)
The result is a warm, caring, convincing and at times deeply affecting film, easily the best I have ever seen set in Boston, as it recognises the social geography of that fascinating city. Let me tell you how good this film is: If I first saw this film at age 21, it would have probably become one of my favourites of all time. Although I am well past 21, I can still see in it universal truths about finding identity and love; I was captivated.