Deft evocation of emotional truths

December 25, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Good Will Hunting," a tale of love, friendship and personal growth that was written by childhood friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, fairly bursts with the exuberance and youthful energy that must have attended its creation.

Affleck and Damon, who star in the film, wrote the script as struggling young actors, before such vehicles as "Chasing Amy" and "The Rainmaker" put them on the map as major heartthrobs (and, by the way, very fine actors).

As a young-gifted-and-angry melodrama, "Good Will Hunting" is pretty standard fare. But just when it threatens to go all "Miracle Worker" on you, one of its young characters says or does something that bespeaks authentic and quite unexpected wisdom.

Damon plays the title character, Will Hunting, a young man who seems content working odd jobs, drinking with his friends in South Boston pubs and chasing the odd Harvard coed. But Will has other, more mysterious pastimes: During his shifts working as a janitor at MIT, he solves math problems that stump Nobel laureates; vying for a girl's attention, he runs rings around Ivy League poseurs by quoting American history texts with photographic accuracy.

When MIT professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers Will's precocious shenanigans, he begs the young whiz to come under his tutelage, but Will isn't interested in jawing with a bunch of tweedy intellectuals. But when Will is arrested for fighting, Lambeau bails him out, forcing him to see a psychologist as part of his probation.

When that psychologist turns out to be Robin Williams, all bets are, quite naturally, off.

One of the nifty surprises about "Good Will Hunting" is Williams' performance as the therapist Sean Maguire, which is at the most restrained and emotionally connected end of his wildly divergent spectrum. Direct and refreshingly unmannered, Williams' portrayal shows just what a good dramatic actor he can be when allowed to slow down. The moment when Sean confronts Will, telling him that he can be a genius and still not know a thing, is when "Good Will Hunting" takes a crucial turn, making sure that it never sacrifices depth for cuteness.

"Good Will Hunting," which was directed by Gus Van Sant,lacks the visual pop and intensity of his earlier films, and that is a good thing: The main attraction here is Damon and Affleck's winning story, which is well served by terrific performances from a young, energetic cast.

Besides Williams, Damon and Affleck -- who is responsible for the film's most poignant moment -- Casey Affleck (Ben's brother) and Cole Hauser shine as callow Southie toughs, and Minnie Driver lends a cheerful, almost daffy sophistication to the Harvard girl who makes Will rethink his fear of commitment.

"Good Will Hunting" is about many things, including class conflict, emotional maturity, coming to terms with the past and even, in one of Will's most breathtaking feats of verbal dexterity, the economic implications of international intelligence-gathering.

But what makes "Good Will Hunting" such a heartening film is its essential core, which turns out to be friendship at its most fiercely committed. Damon and Affleck clearly have intimate -- and compassionate -- familiarity with young men who may camouflage their feelings with beers and backslaps, but can speak the emotional truth when they're up against it.

A young man's inability to love and ambivalence toward his own gifts may drive the plot of "Good Will Hunting," but it's the boys at his back who give this movie its unique heart.

'Good Will Hunting'

Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard, Minnie Driver

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Rated R (strong language, some sex-related dialogue)

Released by Miramax Films

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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