On Good Will Hunting

Anyone from Boston has heard of Good Will Hunting, as both Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote and starred in the film. It’s an inescapable reality. But it isn’t to say that I haven’t had issues with it in some capacity, mainly how geniuses are portrayed. As according to the HighAbility.org article, “How Pop Culture Stereotypes Impact the Self-Concept of Highly Gifted People“:

Pop culture perpetuates two stereotypes of highly gifted people: the wisecracking whiz kid or the tortured genius. There is no grey area.

On the more light-hearted side, we have characters like Doogie Howser. Doogie is a 16-year old resident surgeon and bona fide genius. He scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT at the age of 6, and graduated from Princeton at 10.

An expert in the field of medicine, he is still only a teenager and faces age-appropriate problems, like passing his driver’s test, for heart-warming chuckles.

A family comedy, Doogie Howser shows a highly gifted person with some minor struggles at normality but in the end a supportive family, close friends, and even a girlfriend to show his social ease, grace, and good wit.

On the other side you have the troubled John Nash of A Beautiful Mind or Will Hunting of Good Will Hunting.

Nash is burdened by his genius, while Hunting suppresses his due to an abusive childhood.

These characters struggle deeply internally, Nash to the point of madness, Hunting to violence and a desire to be less than he can be.

These characters are treated sympathetically, but eventually overcome their pains to take full advantage of their gifts and (with Hunting presumably) bless the world with their gifts, seeing them as such rather than as burdens.

Pop culture stereotypes make it clear: highly gifted people aren’t normal.

They’re either child prodigies, wise beyond their years in some ways while charmingly age-appropriate in others, or they are deeply troubled individuals struggling with staunch inner demons.

For actual highly gifted people in the real world, aspects of these stereotypes may resonate.

Some may feel isolated from others due to their gifts.

But highly gifted people come from all walks of life and deal with their talents in vastly different ways. Not every highly gifted person is a child prodigy, and really, it is horribly unreasonable to expect a 14-year old to have completed med school.

Nor is every highly gifted person angry, unstable, or burdened by their gifts.

On the contrary, many people with exceptional talents live normally, or at least as normally as any person with any kind of I.Q. can live.

The beauty of genius is that it pops up in the most unexpected places. Pop culture stereotypes certainly do not represent this, especially in racial or ethnic diversity, but also in life experience.

A highly gifted person could very well be affected by pop culture stereotypes.

By living a normal life, they may be the boring genius.

Or maybe they haven’t considered their gifts enough to be burdened by them.

Or maybe they aren’t that special because they weren’t a surgeon at 16.

Pop culture holds tremendous impact on the self-concept of the people represented onscreen, even those who society considers exceptionally smart.

In fact, gifted persons need just as much emotional and social assistance as anyone else, including traditional education help, according to Gifted Education:

It is also often incorrectly thought that gifted persons do not have the same problems that regular learners do. Will is a good example of this as he was an orphan who had a terrible childhood filled with abusing foster parents. People incorrectly believe that because Will is intelligent and has a gift that he will be able to better handle other problems in his life. His girlfriend, Skylar, struggles with this as she tries to reach past Will’s intelligence to reach his emotional side, which he has problems revealing. This myth about gifted students, that they do not need additional assistance in life, shows that gifted education has a positive influence in schools and not only in academic aspects. Leta Hollingworth first showed that gifted students need social and emotional assistance in school in addition to traditional educational help (Colangelo, 2003.) Just because Will is able to solve complex mathematical theories and has what is believed to be a photographic memory, it does not mean he has the mental capacity or understanding to work through his emotional and social problems. He still needs to be taught and aided in this part of his life, but it is often incorrectly assumed that his life is easy because he is intellectually gifted. This assumption is made of many gifted individuals, yet appropriate gifted education could be what is needed to help guide troubled students with extra talents towards a better future and will enable them with the tools to deal with their problems as well as their gifts.

In determining Will Hunting’s giftedness, one can use Robert Sternberg’s five criteria that he believes must be met in order to deem a person as gifted. Will is superior relative to his peers in several academic areas most notably mathematics and comprehension. His mathematical ability shown in the film meets the second criterion of possessing a rare high-level skill in that he is able to solve theorems that had previously been incredibly difficult for even the highest of mathematicians. During the course of Good Will Hunting Will meets Sternberg’s Productivity, Demonstrable, and Value Criteria as his giftedness is realized and the various professors begin to work with him (Colangelo, 2003.) Will is shown to have a lot of potential productivity in the area of mathematics and this potential is from where much of the film’s drama comes. His mentors get frustrated as he does not live up to the potential that is shown as he demonstrates his abilities. Sternberg would identify Will Hunting as gifted based on fulfilling all five criteria as well as demonstrating giftedness from his triarchic model, which describes gifted individuals as having one or more of the following: analytic, creative, and/or practical giftedness (Colangelo, 2003.)

Will Hunting is obviously a very gifted individual whose incredible abilities in mathematics and other areas of academics ensure he can have a successful career, but he is not gifted in all areas of his life. It is incorrectly assumed that because he is intelligent, he needs no other assistance in his life, but as the film shows, he has problems like any non-gifted person does, too. Good Will Hunting is a powerful story that can be used to show how necessary gifted education is as Will might have become the classic case of someone with amazing talents who is unable to capitalize on them or is unable to work through other problems in his or her life. Luckily, in this fictional account, the gifted individual is finally given extra assistance in the form of a therapist and as a result begins to work through his problems in order to fully maximize his talents. Good Will Hunting, through its presentation of a gifted individual, shows stereotypes of such people and also gives a strong case for the field of gifted education by showing the effects both have on the main character, Will Hunting.

Finally, I’d like to go to Debates in Mathematics Education by Dawn Leslie and Heather Mendick, pages 18 and 19, for the section, “Born That Way: The Story of Mathematical Ability” from Chapter 2, From Good Will Hunting to Deal or No Deal:

We have organized this chapter around stories about mathematics giving examples of how they circulate in popular culture and how these are taken up by students we spoke with within our research. We begin with one of the most widespread and influential stories about mathematics: that being good (or bad) at it is in your genes. The film Good Will Hunting is an example of this idea that mathematicians are born not made. The central character Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) has more than ‘natural ability,’ he’s a ‘genius.’ A self-taught, working class janitor at MIT, overnight he solves problems which took a Fields Medallist, MIT Professor years.

Stories of natural mathematical abilities are usually supported by being associated with other characteristics that are seen as natural: mental health issues, autism, obsession. In Good Will Hunting, Will loses control and uses physical violence early in the film landing him a lengthy course of therapy. Similarly, in the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and the film Rainman, the main characters combine mathematical abilities with autism spectrum disorders. While in the film A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of mathematician John Nash, exceptional mathematical ability is closely related with schizophrenia, paranoia, and social anxiety. This pattern repeats in the films Pi and Enigma whose genius mathematicians both have breakdowns. In Pi this breakdown results in the loss of all  mathematical abilities, but increased mental calm, happiness and connections with other people. This parallels the ending of Good Will Hunting, when Will abandons a high-powered career in mathematics in pursuit of love and connection with girlfriend Skylar.

In popular culture, mathematical ability is double-edged. It carries power (to control the stock market and access the divine in Pi, and to win the Second World War in Enigma and the cold war in A Beautiful Mind) yet is often linked with disabilities. The students we spoke to picked up on this, sometimes reproducing these stories and sometimes challenging them. School student Bob said about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: ‘most people that do have Asperger’s syndrome are actually amazing at maths but they like have side effects like schizophrenia and things that like stop them going out.’ When we showed people a picture of A Beautiful Mind‘s John Nash, this provoked talk between boundaries between genius and madness: ‘is he crazy of is he just clever?’. People who did not like mathematics tended to position these attributes negatively as something with which they didn’t identify. However, those who’d chosen mathematics (or we’re planning to), were more likely to frame this positively as ‘skill,’ ‘commitment,’ or ‘devotion.’ Young women presented more negative perceptions than young men, constructing Nash as ‘disturbed,’ ‘nuts,’ ‘weird,’ ‘mental.’

For many people we talked to, this story of natural mathematical geniuses coexists with another story: that most people can do mathematics and get better at it through practice. The tension between these two stories is resolved by the problematic idea that there are two sorts of mathematics, esoteric and everyday, associated with two sorts of people, geniuses and normal people. School student Firelfy distinguished between ‘genius maths, which is working out these equations and winning big prizes’ and ‘the sort of maths that [you can] apply to engineering or… accountancy, or anything.’ He continued, genius maths ‘is more a thing you see as someone who sits at home with a desk, staying up till two o’clock working out this equation. Whereas applied maths, you just think someone, just like a more normal person with a job, even though the maths might be similar.’ In describing this as how ‘you just think’ things rather than how things really are, Firefly implicitly recognizes there’s a problem with his image. His final ‘even though the maths might be similar’ also shows awareness of contradictions in his account. However, not everyone expressed such reflexitvity, and even when they did, they had no alternatives with which to replace this image of the crazy, isolated, obscure mathematical genius.

This association between being a mathematician and the exceptional figure of the genius makes it difficult for individuals to identify themselves with mathematics. Even when they are good at it by school standards, the spectre of those who are natural-born geniuses renders their own achievements as second-class in comparison. In the case of women and of minority ethic groups, this is complicated by the fact that in popular culture these exceptional individuals are usually white males and, with the notable exception of Will, come from middle-class backgrounds.

So, there is a television show in which a similar story takes place, Farscape, with the character of John Crichton, and the neural-clone, whom Crichton names ‘Harvey.’ the neural-clone was placed in John’s mind during “Nerve” in order to extract the knowledge of wormhole weapons, a key storyline within the series.

Notably, during the second season finale, Die Me, Dichotomy, Crichton gets taken over by ‘Harvey’, becoming violent and murderous.

The last episode of Farscape, “Bad Timing,” features both Crichton and Harvey in large bunny suits.

This is a direct reference to the 1950 film, Harvey, featuring James Stewart.

According to Roger Ebert:

It must be heartbreaking to be able to appreciate true genius and yet fall just short of it yourself. A man can spend his entire life studying to be a mathematician–and yet watch helplessly while a high school dropout, a janitor, scribbles down the answers to questions the professor is baffled by.

It’s also heartbreaking when genius won’t recognize itself, and that’s the most baffling problem of all in “Good Will Hunting,” the smart, involving story of a working-class kid from Boston.

The film stars Matt Damon as a janitor at MIT who likes to party and hang around the old neighborhood and whose reading consists of downloading the contents of whole libraries into his photographic memory. Stellan Skarsgard (the husband in “Breaking the Waves”) plays Lambeau, the professor, who offers a prize to any student who can solve a difficult problem. The next morning, the answer is written on a blackboard standing in the hall.

Who claims credit? None of the students does. A few days later, Lambeau catches Will Hunting (Damon) at the board and realizes he’s the author–a natural mathematical genius who can intuitively see through the thorniest problems. Lambeau wants to help Will, to get him into school, maybe, or collaborate with him. But before that can take place, Will and some buddies are cruising the old neighborhood and beat up a guy. Will also hammers on the cops a little and is jailed.

He’s a tough nut. He sees nothing wrong with spending his whole life hanging out with his friends, quaffing a few beers, holding down a blue-collar job. He sees romance in being an honest bricklayer, but none in being a professor of mathematics–maybe because bricklaying is work, and, for him, math isn’t.

“Good Will Hunting” is the story of how this kid’s life edges toward self-destruction and how four people try to haul him back. One is Lambeau, who gets probation for Will with a promise that he’ll find him help and counseling.

One is Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), Lambeau’s college roommate, now a community college professor who has messed up his own life, but is a gifted counselor. One is Skylar (Minnie Driver), a British student at Harvard, who falls in love with Will and tries to help him. And one is Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Will’s friend since childhood, who tells him: “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket. It would be an insult to us if you’re still around here in 20 years.” True, but Will doesn’t see it that way. His reluctance to embrace the opportunity at MIT is based partly on class pride (it would be betraying his buddies and the old neighborhood) and partly on old psychic wounds. And it is only through breaking through to those scars and sharing some of his own that McGuire, the counselor, is able to help him. Robin Williams gives one of his best performances as McGuire, especially in a scene where he finally gets the kid to repeat, “It’s not my fault.” “Good Will Hunting” perhaps found some of its inspiration in the lives of its makers. The movie was co-written by Damon and Affleck, who grew up in Boston, who are childhood friends, and who both took youthful natural talents and used them to find success as actors. It’s tempting to find parallels between their lives and the characters–and tempting, too, to watch the scenes between Damon and Driver with the knowledge that they fell in love while making the movie.

The Will Hunting character is so much in the foreground that it’s easy to miss a parallel relationship: Lambeau and McGuire also are old friends who have fought because of old angers and insecurities. In a sense, by bringing the troubled counselor and the troublesome janitor together, the professor helps to heal both of them.

The film has a good ear for the way these characters might really talk.

It was directed by Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy,” “To Die For”), who sometimes seems to have perfect pitch when it comes to dialogue; look at the scene where Matt and Skylar break up and say hurtful things, and see how clear he makes it that Matt is pushing her away because he doesn’t think he deserves her.

The outcome of the movie is fairly predictable; so is the whole story, really. It’s the individual moments, not the payoff, that make it so effective.

“Good Will Hunting” has been rather inexplicably compared to “Rainman,” although “Rainman” was about an autistic character who cannot and does not change, and “Good Will Hunting” is about a genius who can change, and grow, if he chooses to.

True, they can both do quick math in their heads. But Will Hunting is not an idiot savant or some kind of lovable curiosity; he’s a smart man who knows he’s smart but pulls back from challenges because he was beaten down once too often as a child.

Here is a character who has four friends who love and want to help him, and he’s threatened by their help because it means abandoning all of his old, sick, dysfunctional defense mechanisms.

As Louis Armstrong once said, “There’s some folks, that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.” This movie is about whether Will is one of those folks.

Will is more generally shown to be brilliant but lazy person in need of epiphany therapy, single-issue psychology with “the reason you suck” speeches from close friends, because what else would motivate someone to lead a better life than to get assurance they suck?




9 thoughts on “On Good Will Hunting

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