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‘Good Will Hunting’ for an Education: The Value of Choice

*This Review Contains Spoilers*

Good Will Hunting (1997) - IMDb
‘Good Will Hunting’. Pic: IMDb

Let me just begin by saying that Good Will Hunting (1997) is my favourite film of all time… All. Time. Written while Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were in college, this 1997 classic hits home for many students and young people alike.

Using a soundtrack laced with music by Elliott Smith, the film has a unique tone to it; lying somewhere between melancholic and broody. The colour palette of a New England autumn adds to the melancholy and academic feel. The realism of the film rests in the characters and the dialogue. In scenes with the late Robin Williams, the dialogue is hypnotically natural; there is no need for added drama here. 

We are introduced to our miscreant protagonist Will (Matt Damon) as he drinks and fights his way through life in South-Boston with his friends Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Billy (Cole Hauser) and Morgan (played by Affleck’s brother, Casey). This film values cinematic simplicity, allowing it to focus more on developing the narrative and character arcs. Will works as a janitor at MIT to earn his keep. His life is painted as the standard way of living for the non-college educated kids of under-privileged areas. That is, until one day, a maths equation is drawn-up on a chalkboard in a hallway in MIT that has only been solved by geniuses. To the surprise of…well, everyone, Will, the working-class underdog, solves said equation. This sets the film up for Will’s internal struggle — does he accept the offers he is given for a stellar education and become the suit-clad man he despises? Along with this probing question, Will also develops a relationship with his psychologist (played by the late Robin Williams). After working through his trauma and having stern words with friends, Will decides not to follow where his genius will lead, in search for his girl, Skylar (Minnie Driver).

While it seemed a no-brainer that Will, our scrappy, Southie underdog, would choose to grab this bull by the horns, he subverts audience expectation. In a world where brains and education are deemed characteristics of success, and getting into Oxbridge or an Ivy League school is a badge of honour, our lovable protagonist chooses to see his future without this as more valuable. That is not to say that a good education is worthless, quite the contrary, but what Good Will Hunting aims to show us is that simply enjoying your life and having experiences is enough. We, the audience, perhaps patronisingly assumed he would jump at the chance, but Will makes clear he does not need a degree or flashy job to prove his intelligence.

One of my favourite scenes in this film is when Chuckie tries to convince Will to accept Lambeau’s (Stellan Skarsgård) offer. He tells Will that he owes it to his friends — who mostly work on building sites and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives — to make the most of the opportunities he is presented with. Chuckie, along with most of the audience at first, doesn’t understand why Will would even think about rejecting the offer. Chuckie tells Will that he would do anything to have what Will has, but instead, will never leave the building sites he works on as he doesn’t have the intelligence to ‘break free’. This raises questions of the importance of education, and why we view a life without it as ‘less-than’.

Nowadays, education has become commercialised; with the spawn of influencers we compare our lives more than ever with everyone around us. What I love about Good Will Hunting is that it is about an average person with marvellous capabilities refusing to be used by a big-shot corporation. Will represents the working-class people who are often overlooked by a system in favour of money-bags. There are still holes in this system: while it is easier than ever to go to university, if you want to excel and get onto a Master’s course, you have to fund it yourself as there are limited government loans. It doesn’t matter how capable you are — if you don’t have the money, you don’t get the qualification. Similarly, it is still the norm that more privately educated people get into Oxbrige. It is becoming clearer than ever, though, that if nurtured enough, any mind can be great — which is why programmes that help under-represented schools with Oxbridge applications are springing up across the country. Good Will Hunting teaches us that it is vital to recognise that qualifications do not define intelligence. Like Will, you can be the smartest person in the room but choose not to take educational opportunities. There is still work to do in the education sector; opportunities remain few and far between for state-educated people. But accepting that there is choice in where an individual places value is what is important.

By Eliza Gill