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Reviews in Retrospect: Good Will Hunting

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's exceptional screenwriting debut is ultimately a feel-good movie about the tension between the need for belonging and the search for the authentic self.

Good will hunting

Will Hunting (Matt Damon), an orphaned and disaffected young man, refuses to conform to society's expectations. He is a janitor at Harvard University, where he shows little respect for the establishment. He also happens to be a mathematical genius, a fact Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) soon discovers. The professor, in a sense, lives through Will as he tries to guide him.

Will is unwilling to relinquish his loyalty to his group of friends (including Casey Affleck) and a tension between the world that is familiar to him and his pursuit of individuation is manifest in Damon’s fine acting, a witty script and expert direction from Gus Van Sant (Elephant).

Uptown girl Skylar (Minnie Driver) gives a credible portrayal of a young woman who is refreshingly (in Will’s eyes, at least) free from illusion about the dominant system, particularly in education. Her on-off romance with Will reflects his ambivalence to attachment and is initially contrasted with the off-screen loving marriage between Will’s therapist Sean Maguire and his deceased wife.

The late Robin Williams gives a powerful, moving performance as Sean, Will’s sixth therapist, as he gains his trust and challenges his cynicism. Williams and Damon, a comparative newcomer at the time, have superb on-screen chemistry, negotiating the barriers standing in Will’s way through a somewhat unorthodox form of therapy.

Both raised in the same poor area of town, this shared background enables Maguire to challenge the cocky-but-frightened young Will. Williams’ character’s engagement with his client through personal disclosures during their therapy sessions makes a critical comment on how therapy is often ‘delivered’, demonstrating that it’s wisdom and not knowledge that teaches us how to live.

There are many conflicts in this film, external and internal, that are embodied by the leads. When Will makes a life-changing decision, his resolution—though possibly a surprise to him—is not unexpected for the audience.

Good Will Hunting shows us that, both despite and because of differences, it is ultimately only through a meaningful relationship that the authentic self can be realised.

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