Good Will Hunting is a smooth blend of Little Man Tate and Breaking Away: A prodigy is uprooted from his normal environment by an ambitious mentor, and a college-age blue-collar "townie" gains entrance to the ivy-clad university in his backyard.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has spent all of his 20 years in the working-class neighborhood of South Boston. An orphan who's grown up in abusive foster homes, he's already got a long criminal rap sheet and thinks nothing of picking fights and beating someone to a bloody pulp.
But Will's also an academic genius, able to easily absorb and retain complex information, think creatively and use his wit to undo grandstanding grad students with their own words. He works as a janitor at MIT, where Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) has posted an immensely difficult math problem as a challenge to his students. Will solves it without much trouble, and his ambiguous reward is becoming Lambeau's protégé.
Concurrently, Will hooks up with Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard premed student. They mesh temperamentally, even if economically and socially they're worlds apart.
The only real conflict exists within the brilliant but highly defensive Will, who must learn to trust, accept the love around him and get on with his genius life. That's where Sean (Robin Williams), an Ordinary People-like therapist, comes in. Good Will Hunting could easily turn to mush if it weren't for Williams' beautifully restrained and quietly intense performance.
Director Gus Van Sant is most at ease portraying Will's shambling life with Chuckie (Ben Affleck) and his other friends, giving these scenes a loose, funky vibe not unlike his Drugstore Cowboy (1989). But he also draws out some lovely nuances from Will and Skylar's relationship, and delves effectively into the deep-seated rivalry between Lambeau and Sean.
The script by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (longtime friends who grew up in Cambridge) is showy and often insightful, but contains no real suspense. Will's future is apparent from the get-go, the only question is how he gets there.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].