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FLASHBACKS: Good Will Hunting, 2/17/1998

[2009 note: The film wasn’t released in Hermiston, Oregon until February; the closest it had come in its first release was Kennewick, Wash., 30 miles north.]

A smart, funny, and affecting film has come to Hermiston – just in time to mark its nine Oscar nominations, which I really hope brings in viewers. Good Will Hunting, directed by Oregon’s own Gus Van Sant (To Die For and My Own Private Idaho) from a screenplay by co-stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is effortlessly intelligent, strylish, and warm. And it’s that rare film that makes math a rush…

Damon plays Will Hunting, a young Boston punk who’s smart enough to take a job at MIT so he can absorb that college knowledge without paying tuition; he’s a janitor, but one with a photographic memory and a knack for proving fiendishly difficult math theorems. He and his best friend (Affleck) survive day-by-day on the meaner streets of Boston, and often get into street fights and other troubles.

Damon gets the attention of an MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgard of Amistad), who wants to ensure that he overcomes his troubles and makes use of his gifts. Damon resists, with often pretty funny results, until he meets his match: another prof played by Robin Williams. The older man learns how to see through Damon’s smart-aleck exterior to find a young man in pain – and he does this by opening himself up, to show he’s also in pain.

Meanwhile, Damon gets the attention of a Harvard-based grad student played by Minnie Driver (Circle of Friends); he starts dating her, and they start falling in love. This raises the stakes further, because he doesn’t feel ready to be honest with her about his background…so he lies with creativity and faked conviction until circumstances come to a head, though not in an obvious, plotted way.

The people who made Good Will Hunting loved this film, and their concern for it shows. Danny Elfman provides his now-trademark intricate and textured music, which is given an Irish tinge to reflect the Boston setting and is played with affecting delicacy. (He scored Van Sant’s To Die For with “la la la” irony, which was great for that film’s empty-headed Suzanne Stone, but thankfully he doesn’t repeat himself here just because it’s the same director again.) And many scenes are shot with a natural, unforced warmth – even a street fight (you’ll see).

The film also is an intentionally generous acting showcase; actors love meaty dialogue and monologues, and Affleck and Damon have a great ear for the spoken word (they wrote the dialogue only after they acted out each scene many times). Their writing, in fact, just feels exact: Williams explains exactly how much Damon has to grow up, Damon explains exactly why he won’t take a federal job offer, and Affleck explains exactly why Damon is shooting himself in the foot by trying to avoid using his talents. There’s a scene pointing out that known prodigies, depending on circumstances, can be either Albert Einstein or the Unabomber, and the film shows what’s really at stake for Good Will Hunting – while still remaining very funny. You will go through a lot of moods during this film – humorous, sad, ironic – but your final feeling should be satisfaction as the gentle ending unfolds.