Related links
More movie reviews
Movie times
Links from Boston.com

Latest News
Latest arts & entertainment news

Diane White
Barbara Meltz
Peter Hotton

Related Features
Movie reviews
Book reviews
TV & radio coverage
Movie times

Click here for a table of contents and a list of special online features


Search the Globe:


Sections Boston Globe Online: Page One Nation | World Metro | Region Business Sports Living | Arts Editorials Columnists Calendar Discussion Forums Classifieds Extranet Archives

Low-graphics version

The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Movie Reviews
'Will' has its way

Gus Van Sant directs and South Boston stars in a film that rides young, exuberant energies

By Jay Carr, Globe Staff, 12/25/97

Even rarer than a breath of fresh air is a breath of fresh Hollywood film. Brainy and heartfelt and right on target, ``Good Will Hunting'' is such a film. It's not only one of the year's best and most satisfying films, it's also one of a handful that seem poised for a last-minute rescue of 1997 from what had been looking pretty much like the pits. Not that ``Good Will Hunting'' exactly has Hollywood written all over it. In fact, it has Boston written all over it. It's as good as it is largely because it focuses on things Hollywood almost never seems to notice -- like believable working-class characters.

Riding a heads-up script, maverick direction slyly attuned to its energies and passions, and a crackling ensemble performance led by Matt Damon's career-making role as a South Boston prodigy who can't untangle his genius from his anger, ``Good Will Hunting'' has only to hurdle the conventionality of its upbeat therapeutic agenda. It does, coming at you with raw torrents of heart that just won't stop, thanks to two other key pieces of casting -- Gus Van Sant, film's patron saint of outsiders, as director, and South Boston, as itself. Any other locale would be unthinkable.

Actors-turned-screenwriters Damon and Ben Affleck, friends since they were boys growing up in Cambridge, not only know the territory but respect it, giving it its due, saluting its code of loyalty, making us feel the fears and drives of Damon's Will Hunting, who spends his days as a janitor at MIT and his nights drinking and killing time with his buddies. What sets him apart from them -- and everybody else -- are his photographic memory and once-in-a-century gift for mathematics. His life starts to change when he notices an advanced math problem on a chalkboard in a corridor he's cleaning, and solves it as quickly as he can move the chalk.

The prof who thought to challenge his class is amazed, doubly so when he finds that his search for the mystery student ends in his discovery of the janitor. But the mathematician played by Stellan Skarsgard (of ``Breaking the Waves'') finds that taking a prodigy under his wing isn't simple. Will is angry, suspicious, street-smart, and hardly falling all over himself with gratitude at the prof's interest. But when the prof learns Will is about to do time for starting one street fight too many, he applies leverage, getting Will off on condition that he show up for one math session a week -- and therapy besides.

It's amusing to watch Will play mind games with the first few therapists. But when he's thrown together with the prof's old school friend who also happens to be a tough character from Southie, sparks fly. The role of Sean Maguire, who is as emotionally bruised as his patient (Will is an orphan abused by foster parents), is richer than similar roles Robin Williams has undertaken in ``Dead Poets Society'' and ``Awakenings.'' Maguire is easily one of the best and most substantial roles of Williams's career. Initially muted, Maguire sees that Will won't play the game and open up unless he opens up to Will too. Will, in fact, draws first blood, accusing the prof of going into emotional hiding since his wife died of cancer and bluntly analyzing one of the therapist's watercolors as a dead giveaway -- and a mediocre knockoff of Winslow Homer.

But Williams's Maguire is tough too. Meanwhile, Will and his buddies venture into Harvard Square, where Will shreds a condescending Harvard student at a bar and attracts the attention of Minnie Driver's pre-med student, Skylar. The vibe between them is as convincing as that of any lovers on any screen this season. But, predictably, Will's hang-ups present problems. He's not as emotionally sturdy as Skylar, although he's smart and funny with her (Damon having with Affleck written himself dialogue as inventive and winning as any since ``Chasing Amy''), ardent, earning laughs when he seethes with impatience, wanting to zip through her math homework so she can be with him, and only reluctantly yielding to her insistence that she must do it herself.

The moments in which the young lovers try to impress each other while simultaneously holding back a bit ring truer than any other such exchanges this season. Usually, we have to look to foreign films for such convincing renderings of what actually goes on with young people, right down to the mix of sexual tension and sexual anticipation. But first and foremost, ``Good Will Hunting'' is a film riding young, exuberant energies. And if the exchanges between Will and his therapist and Will and his lover ring true, so, just as triumphantly and even more poignantly, do those between Will and his cronies. As the buddy who, as one character says, would lie down in traffic for Will, Affleck's rough and ready Chuckie brings a beautifully nuanced tenderness to a role that could have been two-dimensional.

Damon's Will gets to us because there's always pain in his eyes, behind his cocky front or his lightning synapses. Affleck's Chuckie gets to us because we feel him feeling things he hasn't got the words to express. He's never merely local color; he earns as well a moral weight and authority. ``Good Will Hunting'' almost completely hurdles an obviousness that only emerges in the clash between the therapist and his professor friend over Will's future direction. What in other hands could have been hobblingly schematic here remains fresh because of the emotional subtleties and variety inscribed by Van Sant and the actors -- among whom, by the way, must be included Casey Affleck's junior member of the quartet, dying to be taken as seriously as the others.

I like even the the beginning, which dares to roll the opening credits over pages of books and mathematical formulas. I like too the unpicturesque, unselfconscious way South Boston is photographed, the attention to detail. The extras look right. Someone even noticed that the cars in Southie predominantly run to heavy American models. Never do you doubt that everybody connected with this film cares. It works -- satisfyingly, urgently, richly -- because it comes to us as felt knowledge. Tour buses will probably start clogging the streets now on the way to the L Street Bar and Grill, but that's a small price to pay for the huge appeal this film is going to enjoy. If you were worried whether ``Good Will Hunting'' would get the Boston stuff right, as I was, you'll watch it not only with pleasure, but also with relief.

Click here for advertiser information

© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Boston Globe Extranet
Extending our newspaper services to the web
Return to the home page
of The Globe Online