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Motion Picture Musings: What Can We Learn From Good Will Hunting?

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

Last year, we considered the representation of teachers in movies in our Teachers in Talkies series. Now, we reflect further on the ideals and critiques of education presented in films. At best, we might gain insight into the flaws and potential of our approaches to learning. At worst, you will have some excellent film recommendations for your Christmas film list, beginning with the 1997 American Drama co-written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon: Good Will Hunting.

Movies shape our values, perspectives and ideals. Take a moment to reflect: which movie has changed how you fundamentally perceived an issue? Is there a character that you particularly relate to? A quote that constantly comes to mind when you face adversity? A time when movies are an escape from reality? Certainly, the last month in lockdown has been an opportunity for many of us to go on a movie marathon. Today we look at Good Will Hunting.

Thinking for Yourself

We arrive with Will (Matt Damon), Chuckie (Ben Affleck) and their buddies in a Harvard college bar. Chuckie exclaims “I thought there would be equations on the wall” and proceeds to order a drink while flirting with women at the counter. A young man in a blue sweater arrives and belittles Chuckie’s suggestion that he is studying at Harvard. The Harvard grad, named Clark, further humiliates Chuckie reciting, in a rehearsed manner, an argument concerning the market economy in the southern colonies. Will interrupts with a list of arguments that this student will recite in future years and accuses Clark of an ultimate crime against academia: plagiarism. The stand-off continues, as Will strikes another blow, but this time at the heart of university education:

“You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you coulda’ picked up for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”

The scene strikes powerfully at the heart of the American education system. Though released over a decade prior, it is a pertinent commentary on the anger and disenchantment during the 2010 student protests. It unapologetically points out that education has lost its meaning within the extortionate university fees while suggesting that anyone has the potential to learn. In one respect, it harkens to an American Dream that people can rise in society through their own effort, while equally suggesting that your fate is marked by your money. At the core of all of this, it is underlining a prized value in education: the paramountcy of thinking for yourself.

Isolation in Intellect

A second pivotal scene of the film: an MIT University Professor (Stellan Skarsgard) challenges his students to solve a maths question that took him and his colleagues two years to solve. Will, who has been working as a janitor at MIT suddenly leaves the bar. Gentle piano notes of the soundtrack accompany our view of Will writing on his reflection of his bathroom mirror; the symbols flowing from his pen and hardly a flicker of emotion on his face. The next morning, he is crouched by his the chalkboard next to his hoover, alone in a large corridor writing up his answers.

The scene visually illustrates the isolation of academia and intelligence. Will, despite his inherent gifts, is unable to fit-in with his friends or the institution. Likewise, he is torn between hating the American system - illustrated by violent aggression towards a policeman - and wanting to be a part of it, demonstrated by happy scenes solving equations with the MIT professor. Will solves this split by focusing on the mathematical problems in front of him, finding solace in their logic. Yet, the film suggests that this is a defence mechanism against his internal turmoil hiding behind a logical rationality against the confusion of his life.

A Personal Journey

Will is sitting with his girlfriend, Skylar (Minnie Driver), watching her studying. It is a breezy day, and Skylar insists that she wants to finish her work without his help. Will’s eyes dart to two men playing chess, perhaps suggesting that Will’s relationship with Skylar resembles a chess game, an intellectual exercise. Skylar asks Will if he has a photographic memory. He tries to explain how complex subjects like organic chemistry just make sense to him, but his distant stare highlights the impasse here: Skylar, and therefore the audience, cannot truly relate. Yet, in the next moment this emotional distance is quickly overcome as Skylar and Will seem happy in each other's presence.

Aside from its overt critiques of the American education system, Good Will Hunting is a powerful film because of its emotional and raw engagement with a young man, a self-taught genius, who is learning to grow up. His honest relationships with his psychologist, friends, girlfriend and professor are marked by moments of intense connection and distance. All want him to meet his potential but have fixed ideas of what this potential means. Will learns that he must rely on his support network as much as his intellect to achieve a meaningful life.

Final Thoughts

The final scene is of a car driving down a long road. Will has escaped the town he grew up in, the systems of Boston and by extension the American system and its expectations. However, this ending does not commit to showing whether this was the right decision, and without a clear core message, leaves the audience dissatisfied and frustrated.

Nevertheless, Good Will Hunting is a wonderful exploration of the flaws in the American education system, the isolation of academia, and the personal journey of a young man who learns to accept himself and relate to the people who care for him. Instead of falling victim to the way things are, reminds the audience of the importance of thinking for yourself and taking responsibility for your learning, relationships and life.


Blog Post Crafted by Sierra

Sierra studied a Research Masters in Social Anthropology at University College London following her undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

In her spare time, Sierra enjoys practising Taekwondo, Ballet and Rowing and learning as much as she can about the world


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