Good Will Hunting at 25: The movie that unearthed a star and delivered Robin Williams an Oscar

Good Will Hunting (M, 127mins) Directed by Gus Van Sant ****

There used to be a theory in Hollywood about Robin Williams movies.

If his character has facial hair, then it was likely to be a serious drama, invariably featuring a solid performance from the man himself (see The Fisher King and Awakenings).

However, if he’s clean-shaven, then you can expect something altogether more light and fluffy, where the gifted comedian is given free-range to show off all his skills, occasionally to the detriment of the story and everyone else (witness Hook, Flubber ). Of course, none of this explains Jumanji or Dead Poet’s Society.

However, for this 1997 performance that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he was definitely bearded up in playing therapist Sean Maguire. He’s called in to help a troubled, but brilliant young man come to terms with his own identity (if only he was around for Jason Bourne a few years later!).

Matt Damon is Good Will Hunting.

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Matt Damon is Good Will Hunting.

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A cleaner at Boston’s prestigious MIT, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) one day comes across a complex problem set by one of the advanced math professors. It’s part of a student challenge – whoever solves it will have their name immortalized in the university’s newspaper. When Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers Will has come up with the first solution, he’s both horrified and intrigued. How could someone from the wrong side of the tracks (South Boston) with no tertiary education defeat his charges?

Will himself though has other concerns on his mind. Already possessing a criminal record as long as his arm (albeit one tempered by his ability to defend himself in court), an incident with a group of local thugs sees him wind up in front of a judge who offers both no sympathy – and instant jail time. His only saving grace is the professor, who posits an alternative, meet him once a week for math tutoring, as well as mandatory therapy sessions.

Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgård star in Good Will Hunting.

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Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgård star in Good Will Hunting.

While both the judge and Will reluctantly agree, the latter undermines things by driving a number of potential therapists away. But now he may finally have met his match. For while Will seems determined to remain in the small existence he has built for himself, Dr. Sean Maguire (Williams) is equally determined to get through to the boy.

Although its themes were similar to fellow ’90s dramas like Dead Poets and Jerry Maguirethere’s no doubting this was a crowd-pleasing tale built around solid performances and a compelling story.

First-time screenwriters Damon and Ben Affleck combine the Kevin Smith-esque world of Clerks and Chasing Amy with a more mainstream story that’s awash with emotion, but never descends into the mawkish sentimentality that blights so many “kid with a problem” movies. It also refreshingly celebrated being bright – at a time in a when the dumbing down of America had been reflected in its cinematic fare (Dumb and Dumber and Tommy Boy two particularly egregious, if entertaining examples).

Good Will Hunting might feature one of Robin Williams' most understated performances, but it was arguably the most powerful of his career.

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Good Will Hunting might feature one of Robin Williams’ most understated performances, but it was arguably the most powerful of his career.

Of course, the young cast also helped immensely with Good Will Hunting’s appeal. The Di Caprio-esque Damon may have been playing a character with a photographic memory, but he grounded him with flaws and a vulnerability that will win over even the hardest of hearts. He’s ably supported by both Affleck and Minnie Driver, whose characters prove to be more than just the typical one-dimensional best friend or girlfriend.

But of course, the real kudos belongs to Williams, who here proves that sometimes less is more. It might be one of his most understated performances, but it was arguably the most powerful of his career.

Good Will Hunting is now available to rent from iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube, AroVision and Deluxe AtHome.

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