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Empire List #433: Good Will Hunting

Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” is a very effective dramatic film that could appear in one of those “Before they were Famous” specials. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who were both supporting actors at the time, wrote the screenplay. Their words and individual performances earned them both Oscar nominations in 1997 before they went on to become major movie stars. Casey Affleck, brother of Ben, has a supporting role, and he also would eventually move on to bigger things.

I remember seeing the Oscars in 1997 and knowing this movie was a big deal, but I never got time to see it. I was probably too busy adjusting to living Chile, having recently moved from Newfoundland. About ten years later I finally rented it and watched it in my off-campus room near the University of Sherbrooke. I was studying English, not math, so I couldn’t really indentify with a main character who is a closeted math genius. Yet on some level, I think there is something for everyone in this story.

Matt Damon plays the titular Will Hunting, a young man living in Boston working a blue-collar job like his many loyal friends. He spends his days cleaning up at Harvard University, the Mount Everest of American education. One day as he is cleaning the floor in a classroom, he notices a mathematical equation on the board. With seemingly no difficulty he solves it, indicating he could do more than clean up on campus.

The following day Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgärd) is pleasantly surprised to see someone has solved the problem on his board as he had left as a challenge to his students. He is further surprised when no one rises up to claim the credit. One night he catches Will solving yet another equation, but Will runs off as though shamed by his intelligence. Desperate to nurture this diamond in the rough, Lambeau bails out Will when he get into a fight with a police officer, on the condition that he becomes his student and he seeks counselling.

A funny montage shows Will mocking whatever councillor comes his way. It turns out he is not only good with numbers; he can also throw people off. As a last resource, Lambeau reaches out to his old colleague Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) with whom he has a tenuous history. Over time Sean does manage to break through with Will since he see through his defences.

Most importantly, they share about the one thing all men can talk about: women. Will has begun a relationship with Skylar (Minnie Driver) a student about to graduate from Harvard with plans to further her education in California. Shamed of the poor neighbourhood where he grew up, Will is hesitant to let her into his life. Having lost his wife, Sean encourages him not too waste any time.

Despite his gift, Will is like all young men his age. He is at a crossroads and hesitates where to go next. Lambeau has many connections that could lead to high paying jobs but Will feels so much loyalty to his childhood friends that he wishes to stay in Boston and work with them as a labourer. Even his best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) believes that would be the wrong move. If any of Will’s friends had his gift with numbers, most of them would probably never hesitate to leave.

Those honest scenes are what earned this movie the Academy Award for best original screenplay. What earned Robin Williams his Oscar for best supporting actor are the therapy scenes between Sean and Will. One of my favourites was Sean’s re-telling of a historic Baseball game involving his future wife. I am not a baseball fan, but you could feel it was a one heck of a game.

This movie is about finding your place in life and choosing what is most important to you as you embark on your journey. I am no math genius nor do I have Will’s emotional baggage, but having recently been through college and university, I know what it’s like to hesitate where to go next in life. We all have to make heavy choices some day. Seeing this movie is a very good choice for the writing, superb acting and directing.  


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