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Good Will Hunting (1997) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

lambeau shawn will’s skylar

Principal social themes: education/literacy, homelessness/poverty, child abuse, violence/gangs

Miramax. R rating. Featuring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård, Cole Hauser, Brian Ricci, Richard Fitzpatrick, Rachel Marjorowski, George Plimpton. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Cinematography by Jean Yves Escoffier. Edited by Pietro Scalia. Music by Danny Elfman. Produced by Lawrence Bender. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Color. 126 minutes.


Good Will Hunting is an unusual character portrait of a self-taught genius named Will Hunting, who grew up as an impoverished orphan in South Boston, suffered abuse at the hands of his foster father, and engaged in gang violence. When Gooding is on trial, a professor, one of the world’s leading mathematicians, learns about his predicament and intervenes with the judge. The boy is released into the professor’s custody on condition that he receive therapy. The crux of the film concerns the Pygmalion-like efforts to mold Gooding into a responsible individual who can properly utilize his potential. Good Will Hunting received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and Robin Williams received an award for Best Supporting Actor.


The film opens at an advanced mathematics class at M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) taught by Dr. Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), who challenges his class with a theorem he places on a chalkboard outside the classroom, saying any student who proves it will gain special school recognition. A young school janitor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), glances at the problem as he cleans up in the hallway. At his small rundown flat, Will solves the problem effortlessly, writing on his bathroom mirror. The next night, mopping up the corridors, Will writes out his solution on the chalkboard. Lambeau is stunned when he sees the answer the following day. At his next class, he asks for the student to step forward, but nobody does. He replies by announcing the posting of a new problem, one that took Lambeau himself two years to prove, for the mysterious math wizard to tackle. Later, Lambeau and Bob, his assistant, catch a janitor writing on the board. He yells at him not to place graffiti on his problem board. The professor chases him, but Will disappears after slipping around a corner. Bob alerts the professor to read what Will had written. Apparently, he had solved the difficult problem on the spot. He tries to track down the identity of the janitor, assuming he is a student with a temporary job. Meanwhile, Will, hanging out with his tough young friends, gets involved in a street brawl and he is arrested for striking a cop. After he is released, Will heads to a fancy tavern favored by college students. Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), Will’s best friend, tries to pick up a girl. Spotting Sullivan as an ordinary working stiff, a brash intellectual cuts in hoping to impress the girls. He shows up Sullivan, questioning his knowledge of history by dropping the names of a few prominent historians. Will intervenes, however, and puts the intellectual to shame with his own knowledge of these historians and their theories. One of the girls, Skylar (Minnie Driver), a premed student from England, gives Will her phone number as she leaves for the evening. Lambeau learns Will’s identity and that he gained his job through the parole board. He attends Will’s trial, where the judge intends to throw the book at him because of his lengthy rap sheet. Lambeau talks to the judge, who decides to release him into the professor’s custody under condition that he is treated by a therapist.

Will agrees to meet weekly with Lambeau to study advanced mathematics, but is reluctant to undergo therapy. He manages to outfox each therapist that he is assigned to see, either by reading their books or otherwise learning their weak points and challenging them. Lambeau finally decides to turn to his old college roommate, Shawn Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychology teacher and counselor, who grew up in South Boston just like Will. Their first session becomes an intellectual battle. When Will analyzes a painting by Shawn, he suggests that he married the wrong woman. For a moment, Shawn becomes violent, grabbing Will by the neck and warning him to never cast aspersions against his wife. Later, Shawn tells Lambeau that he will accept Will’s case. When they next meet, Shawn takes Will to the park. He explains about his late wife, Nancy, who had been the center of his life. For a moment, he forgot that Will was just a child trying to be provocative. Being self-taught, Will’s experience is only through books, nothing first hand. In fact, he has never left the Boston area. He was an orphan who had suffered abuse at three foster homes. Shawn states, even through he has read Oliver Twist , he would not presume to know the difficulties Will has faced in his short life. He asks that Will show him the same respect, and not to pass judgment because he has a vast background in book knowledge. Touched by Shawn’s honesty, Will tentatively agrees to give the therapy sessions a try.

He calls Skylar and they go on a date, but Will is too nervous to call her back. Lambeau is continually impressed by Will’s natural ability. Shawn makes progress only when Will starts to talk about Skylar. Shawn urges him to call her again and give their relationship a chance. Will pursues her, and they fall for each other. But Will is not completely honest with her, saying, for example, that he comes from a large family with twelve brothers instead of admitting he is an orphan. Skylar is brilliant in her own way, and she is independently wealthy due to a large inheritance left her by her father. She tells Will that she would have given up the money if she could have had her father a few months longer. Months pass, and Lambeau asks Shawn if he could help channel Will’s future plans. Lambeau wants to set up Will with a job with a think tank or with the National Security Agency. Shawn, however, wants Will to make up his own mind (even though he is disturbed by his lack of ambition). Will seems content to hang out with his South Boston friends. He tells them he does not care if he remains a manual laborer for the rest of his life. This upsets Chuckie Sullivan, who wants Will to make something of himself. Every time Sullivan appears at his pal’s small flat, he secretly hopes that Will is no longer there, that he has decided to step out into the world and start a new life.

When Skylar has to move out to California to start medical school, she asks Will to join her. Will backs off, unable to respond when Skylar proclaims her love for him. Lambeau and Shawn get into a heated discussion over Will’s future, just as the boy arrives for his weekly session. Will is approaching his twenty-first birthday and will soon be free of Lambeau’s guardianship. Shawn feels he has to make a breakthrough and talks about how he himself was abused as a child. He explains that Will is now held back because he will not face up to his own history of being abused. It is this that makes him unable to trust anyone, to reject someone like Skylar before she can reject him. Shawn simply keeps repeating, “It is not your fault,” until Will breaks down his reserve. Chuckie Sullivan and his South Boston pals buy and restore a car to present to Will on his birthday. At this juncture, Will first agrees to take a high-paying job with a think tank, but then he changes his mind and decides to drive to California to seek his future together with Skylar. He leaves a note with Shawn, who is delighted with his decision. The next time Sullivan comes to Will’s door, he is pleased to find the place is empty. He knows his friend has finally moved on. The end credits run as Will is out on the road driving westward.


Good Will Hunting is a fascinating, if wayward, film that touches on many issues such as education, the nature of intelligence, ambition, self-awareness, class consciousness, poverty, street violence, and abusive foster homes. The premise is that a poor orphan raised in foster homes in the tough surroundings of South Boston is an extraordinarily gifted genius, whose talents in mathematics are equivalent to that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the field of music. Due to his environment and background, he developed an arrogant, cocky attitude that masks his basic insecurity. He only trusts his roughneck friends, with whom he feels comfortable because of their uncompromising loyalty. When he notices Dr. Lambeau’s challenge, it piques his interest. On the other hand, although he has a great affinity for mathematics, he has no love for it. It is just something he can do, but it is too easy. In one remarkable scene, he puts a match to a mathematical report that he wrote, and Lambeau dives to the floor to put out the flames and rescue the pages that Will believes are meaningless. On the whole, Will sees little value in education. When he confronts the intellectual in the bar, he mocks him for spending a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for an education that he could have obtained at the library for just a few dollars in overdue fees. Yet, Will’s own friends have a respect for the education they lack. Skylar struggles with her studies, but admires the ease with which Will can handle any subject. When she discusses this with Will, he admits there are many areas where his intellectual prowess does not apply, such as his inability to play a musical instrument.

Good Will Hunting provides a unique framework for scrutinizing the concept of education in terms of its inherent value and the respect it is accorded by different individuals. In this regard, the film is similar to The Corn Is Green (1945), except that the young miner-turned-scholar in that film had to struggle to gain his education. Lambeau wants to draw Will out of the cocoon of his mean streets niche. But Lambeau is too in awe of Will’s abilities to make any headway. Shawn Maguire, on the other hand, is himself stuck in his own cocoon, which he protects as tenaciously as Will does his own. By drawing Will out, however, he is in turn drawn out by Will, who sees his counselor’s own limitations in withdrawing from life after the death of his wife. Their weekly meetings become symbiotic after Will comes to trust him. This is due in part to Shawn’s own past, growing up in South Boston in an abusive household. Another interesting idea in Good Will Hunting is the debate between Lambeau and Maguire on the individual’s responsibility to society. Lambeau feels if one has the ability he must utilize it in a way that would advance human knowledge, with Einstein as his model. Shawn Maguire, alternately, believes that an individual must seek his own personal fulfillment first, since that is the essence of life. They are both right, from their own respective viewpoints. Will Hunting has to make his own choice, and both Lambeau and Shawn have provided him with the means to do so. One final note is the film’s ability to faithfully reproduce various cultures, from the refined world of academia and the pretentiousness of psychology to the rough and tumble world of the “Southies.” Viewers should be aware of the raw and vulgar language used to illustrate the latter.

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