Coming-of-age stories are almost always about men and there's a good
reason for that. Despite all the hype about how far men have evolved from
the old days, the truth is that most of us haven't. We've read about how
contemporary men express their emotions instead of bottling everything up,
but we don't quite know how to do that. So we still try to be tough, yet
accessible; stoic and cool. We strive to live up to some vague male ideal
that probably never existed, and we feel like frauds. Coming-of-age films
are invaluable because they give us a chance to vicariously grow up all
Which brings us to "Good Will Hunting," a rich, rewarding coming-of-age
tale starring Will Damon and Robin Williams. The screenplay, written by
Damon and his co-star and boyhood friend Ben Affleck ("Chasing Amy,"
"Going All The Way",) is reminiscent of other male-bonding films, notably
"Ordinary People" and "Dead Poets Society," but quite emotionally
satisfying in its own right. Their portrait of a lost young man whose
unresolved pain triggers explosive outbursts, and the two father figures
who battle over his soul, hits all the right notes. Under the assured
hand of director Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho," "Drugstore
Cowboys") even the maudlin parts of the story retain an emotional clarity.
Like "Hoosiers," "Good Will Hunting" takes a well-worn theme and makes
it seem fresh, thanks to exceptional acting and solid, three-dimensional
Will Hunting (Damon) is a scrappy young tough from South Boston's Irish
ghetto who works as a janitor at a prestigious university. A mathematical
genius with a photographic memory, Hunting has no direction, spending his
time pounding beer and exchanging mock insults with his buddies,
particularly his best friend Chuckie (Affleck.) When MIT Professor
Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard from "Breaking The Waves") spots the boy
casually solving an advanced math problem, he pursues Hunting, only to
find him jailed for assaulting a police officer. Lambeau arranges to take
the troubled kid under his wing, with two conditions. Hunting must do
math work with the professor and agree to participate in therapy for his
antisocial behaviors. Following several disastrous attempts to match the
boy with a therapist, Lambeau finally turns to Sean McGuire (Williams,) a
psychology professor at a small community college. McGuire, who grew up
in the same neighborhood as Hunting, tries to help the boy confront his
inner demons, only to find his own painful memories stirred up as well.
Further complicating matters is Hunting's awkward courtship of Skylar
(Minnie Driver,) a wealthy Harvard senior preparing for medical school.
For men seeking to vicariously relive their adolescence, Will Hunting is
the perfect flawed hero. Rakishly handsome and as fast with his tongue as
he is with his fists, Hunting has limitless potential, if he can only
break through his own emotional barriers. To make the wish-fulfillment
scenario complete, he is surrounded by a support system most people only
dream of; a group of loving, encouraging pals, a smart, charming
girlfriend, and two, count 'em, two father figures trying to help the kid
better himself. In lesser hands, this material could have been unbearably
mawkish, but thankfully, Damon and Affleck's script balances the angst
with loads of earthy humor to keep the proceedings grounded. That,
coupled with Van Sant's confident direction and some powerhouse acting,
helps "Good Will Hunting" to pay off in grand fashion.
Matt Damon, who made quite an impression in "The Rainmaker," gives a
breakthrough performance here. Possessed with tousled good looks and a
killer smile, the charismatic actor is utterly convincing as a super-
intellect, while maintaining the character's working-class sensibilities.
He's really quite remarkable here. Robin Williams does admirable work as
well, showing what a fine actor he can be when he restrains himself. As
the wounded professor, Williams projects great strength and defiance,
tempered by a gentle, caring nature. The chemistry that slowly builds
between him and Damon is electrifying.
As Skylar, Minnie Driver has an earthy charm that comes from her
willingness to completely let down her guard. Whether telling a dirty
joke to the guys at a bar, or breaking into tears in the darkness, she
possesses a bracing sense of honesty. It's easy to understand why Hunting
is drawn to her.
Also good are Skarsgard as the driven math professor and Affleck as
Hunting's closest friend. In fact, there isn't a bad performance to be
found in the film. The strong acting, along with Van Sant's ability to
make the South Boston setting feel authentic, allows "Good Will Hunting"
to triumph over its occasional moments of excess sentimentality. Cynics
may dismiss the film as an overly effusive festival of male-bonding, but
for the rest of us, this is just the catharsis we need.
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott