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Peace on Earth, "Good Will" toward film buffs

Blast San Francisco Bureau

If a movie can be summed up as an independent film that is a touching, feel-good, coming-of-age character journey, I'd best stay away. Just the same, that's just what the funny and affecting 'Good Will Hunting' is -- and much to my surprise it's easily the best film of 1997.

The Gus Van Sant-directed fully realized character study rings familiar with its story of a young genius trying to be guided toward his potential. But there's more to the film, thanks to the smart and original script by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Damon plays the delinquent Will Hunting, a chain-smoking 20-year-old who works a menial job as a janitor at the prestigious MIT. Hunting is a regular from south Boston who likes to hang with his homies in the pub.

He's also a delinquent, who's gone in and out of jail for assault, theft and a host of petty crimes. But there's another side to Will: In between mopping floors at MIT, he secretly works out complicated math problems on the school chalkboards. He finds himself in court again when noted MIT professor Jerry Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers Hunting's true genius and wants to exploit his potential. Lambeau agrees to keep the boy, working with him on his math skills and getting him court-ordered therapy sessions.

After a few mischievous sessions with a series of therapists, Lambeau turns for help to his old college roommate, an underachieving middle-aged psychologist, Dr. Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). Sean tries over a few sessions to connect to Will and find out what he's all about. It takes a while -- Sean and Will's first sessions play out like emotional staring contests -- but they develop a relationship of trust, partly because Sean's also from 'Southie' and they both speak the same language. During the film, Hunting also falls for a British-born Harvard student named Skylar, played with natural charm by Minnie Driver.

The film works as a series of scenes where we see Will interact with the various supporting characters and as he learns to open up to a world he long shut out. The film's little social moments -- drinking in the pub with his pals, out on a simple dinner date with Skylar, even the intimate therapy sessions with Sean -- are natural, honest and funny. We watch as Sean and Skylar slowly draw out the emotional bits and pieces of a fun, likable, smart but emotionally crippled soul like Will. This process often comes to clash with Lambeau's sincere desire to help Will exploit his intellectual gifts. In the end, it's his childhood pals, especially Chuckie (Ben Affleck), who ultimately point him in the right direction.

Any cynical reviewer who says 'Good Will Hunting' is another uplifting film about the wonders of psychotherapy (God knows we've seen enough of those films) would only be half-right. There are a few emotionally intense, often tear-jerking moments in the film but they serve to move the character forward.

The film is also keen using Will as a nexus for two opposing social forces: the well-educated and the blue collar. That relationship is underscored by Sean and Lambeau and their attempts to guide Will in what they think is best for him.

The performances in the film are rich, especially that by Damon. Although he looks like an exact cross between pretty boy Mark Walhberg and the 'Titanic'-ally over-hyped Leonardo DiCaprio, Damon brings both honesty to the role (right down to his Boston tongue) and a screen presence that carries well throughout 'Good Will Hunting.' The script by him and fellow co-star Affleck have turned in a wonderfully original script with great roles. Every piece of dialogue in the film is vital and at times so natural it feels improvised. (Damon was also very good in the recent John Grisham's 'The Rainmaker' and if these two lead roles are any indication, audiences can look forward to this bright talent.)

The supporting cast is also strong. Robin Williams gives and understated but important role that helps bring out the good Will Hunting. Driver gets the often thankless and underdone role of female love-interest and keeps it real. She shines in her scenes with Damon. Affleck has a minor but important role and he is an even fit as Chuckie.

Probably the biggest weakness in the film -- and it's a minor one -- is the predictable story arc. We know where Will is headed and we know sort of how Van Sant intends to get him there. But because of the overall richness of the film -- the strong characters, the performances, the string of great scenes and on-the-target dialogue -- we keep tuned in. And by the time the end credits roll, we're glad to have met Will Hunting.