A towering performance by Matt Damon in the lead, and a superlative ensemble headed by a terrific Robin Williams, elevate “Good Will Hunting,” Gus Van Sant’s emotionally involving psychological drama, a notch or two above the mainstream therapeutic sensibility of its story. Centering on a brilliant working-class youngster who’s forced to come to terms with his creative genius and true feelings, this beautifully realized tale is always engaging and often quite touching. With the right marketing, Miramax could score big with an extremely enjoyable picture whose old-fashioned virtues should play well in big cities as well as in Middle American shopping malls.
Fans of Van Sant’s earlier, offbeat films may be disappointed by the more conventional attributes of “Good Will Hunting,” a “problem” drama dealing with the complex relationship between a rough, extraordinarily gifted kid and his equally troubled and bruised therapist. Thematically, film recalls Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” and especially Jodie Foster’s “Little Man Tate,” which also revolved around a child genius of the working class.
Nonetheless, it’s a testament to Van Sant’s idiosyncratic talent that he endows the narrative, particularly its first chapters, with the nihilistic humor and deceptively casual style that have marked his best work, “Drugstore Cowboy” and the more eccentric “My Own Private Idaho.”
Co-written by thesps Damon and Ben Affleck, who have known each other since childhood in Boston, protagonist is Will Hunting (Damon), a 20-year-old lad who works as a janitor at MIT and spends most of his time with his coarse friends at the neighborhood bar. Blessed with a certain genius, Will, who has never attended college, can summon obscure historical references based on his exceptional photographic memory. He can also solve difficult mathematical problems with an ease that makes MIT’s richer and more educated students envious of him.
When big-shot professor Lambeau (“Breaking the Waves’ ” Stellan Skarsgard) presents a math challenge to his students, with a fine reward to match, Will anonymously solves the formula on a blackboard placed in the school’s corridor. Lambeau begins a search for the mysterious student, and upon finding Will takes him under his wing. It’s the only way for Will to get parole after a number of run-ins with the law. Lambeau makes two conditions: that Will meet with him once a week for a math session and that he begin therapy.
A succession of psychologists tries to reach Will, using various techniques (including hypnosis), but he won’t cooperate. Finally, Lambeau summons his old, alienated classmate, Sean McGuire (Williams), a community college instructor and therapist — and the real drama begins.
In essence, script is structured as a battle of wills, with four individuals vying for Will’s soul: a mathematician, a therapist, an affluent British student named Skylar (Mini Driver), who has a crush on him, and his buddy, Chuckie (Affleck).
Most of the narrative consists of intense one-on-one sessions between Will and Sean, two equally stubborn, equally wounded men. True to form, psychological revelations and emotional disclosures are made about their respective pasts. An orphan who was later abused by his surrogate father, Will has carried a chip on his shoulder since boyhood. A widower still in love with his wife, who died painfully of cancer, Sean is also a tough Irishman and product of an abusive parent. These kinds of parallels are, in fact, the major weakness of the script, which grows progressively schematic. By film’s end, every personal problem and turbulent social interaction is neatly resolved.
Helmer Van Sant must have realized that the tale is quite predictable, for he imbues the film with his customary devious style, employing visuals that are both grainy and arty, and leisurely pacing that offers emotional payoffs. As evidenced in his films, Van Sant is one of the few directors who truly understands — and doesn’t condescend to — blue-collar America. Addressing his favorite topic, outcasts, here he delves deeply into his half-dozen characters, and the result is a beautifully textured movie about the kinds of individuals seldom seen in mainstream Hollywood fare. Rich in tone, “Good Will Hunting” is funny, nonchalant, moving and angry, effortlessly alternating its various moods, often within the same scene.
Endowed with good looks (he resembles Leonardo DiCaprio) and acting skills to match, Damon gives a charismatic performance in a demanding role that’s bound to catapult him to stardom. Perfectly cast, he makes the aching, step-by-step transformation of Will realistic and credible.
Comparisons will be made between Williams’ Oscar-nominated role in “Awakenings” (in which he played a shy doctor) and his work here, which is quieter, subtler and far more satisfying. Rest of the cast is uniformly good, with standout work from Driver as the girl who changes Will’s life.
After a couple of disappointing assignments (“Grace of My Heart,” “Gummo”), cult French lenser Jean Yves Escoffier finally gets to show his brilliant, lyrical style in an American project, opting for natural light when possible and using South Boston as an integral character in the yarn. Longtime Van Sant collaborators Melissa Stewart and Beatrix Aruna Stewart also make significant contributions with, respectively, their detailed production design and nuanced costumes, which effectively illustrate the co-existence of disparate social classes in America.