Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a young man who is living on the edges headed toward total self-destruction. During the day he is a janitor at MIT, at night he is partying at bars with his buddies, picking and getting into fights. While he reads everything and anything he can get his hands on, he hides that intelligence. He may not be a student at MIT or Harvard, but he has a brilliance that baffles the smartest MIT professors.
Mostly, Will Hunting is in pain. His childhood has been filled with abuse, neglect, and abandonment. He hides from that pain, while acting out in that pain. It leads him to being jailed after hitting a police officer during a fight on a black top basketball court. In the meantime, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) has been searching for Will because Will is the only person on campus who has solved an unsolvable math problem.
Lambeau manages to work things out so that Will is released into his custody, under two conditions: 1. Will meets with Lambeau on a regular basis; and 2. Will meets with a counselor. Lambeau is unable to find a counselor that would be willing to work with Will, until Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). Sean, a former college roommate of Lambeau’s, is one of the people in Will’s life who works towards bringing him back from the edge of self-destruction.
Sean is a community college professor who has pain in his own life centering around the death of his wife. In a sense Will and Sean become an odd couple. They both have experienced great pain in their lives, and they both hide from that pain in their own ways. In a way, by bringing Will to Sean, Lambeau is an agent of healing for them both.
Robin Williams would win his only Oscar through his performance as Sean McGuire. While it is a dramatic role, one that most audiences were not used to seeing Williams in, there was still space for Williams to do his best improv. In the scene in Sean’s office where he is talking to Will about his dead wife, Williams ad-libs the whole monologue about his wife farting in her sleep.
In addition to Lambeau and Sean, there are others who are working to bring Will back from the edge. His best friend from his childhood, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), tells Will, “You’re sitting on a winning lottery ticket. It would be an insult to us if you’re still around here in twenty years.” Chuckie is telling Will to move on with his life, not to let the old neighborhood pull him back. Will has a chance to move on, a chance to grow, a chance to change. Chuckie sees that in him, and is encouraging Will to take the chance.
Skylar (Minnie Driver), who ironically was named after a girlfriend of Matt Damon’s when he co-wrote the script with Ben Affleck (for which they won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar), only to breakup with her and start dating Minnie Driver, is another character who sees potential in Will. Skylar is a British student attending Harvard who wants Will to go with her to California. She knows that he is hiding behind his past and the pain it holds. Leaving home will bring Will liberation.
Even though Will has these prophetic voices urging him to move forward, to change, and to embrace his future, Will is reluctant. Perhaps it is class pride, he does not want to leave his kind behind. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence. While Will seems to swim in his confidence, he is still hiding behind the pain, suggesting that he is not as confident in his God-given gifts and abilities, especially when he hides mosts of those gifts.
At an emotionally high point of the film, Sean tells Will, “You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.” The message of this statement echoes throughout the film. When Will lets his walls down and welcomes new relationships with Sean and Skylar, he welcomes the possibility of change. It was extremely difficult for Will to believe in himself when he went a lifetime of having no one believe in him.
Many of us may not have experienced the pain and abuse that Will has, or live with the levels of anger he does. But we all have walls up, hiding us from things we don’t want to face about ourselves and our relationships. If we let the walls down, and welcome a relationship with the One who gives new life, change is possible.
Sean was the first person to really believe in Will. Believe in who Will is, and to give him the permission to have the courage and the strength to be who he is on his own terms. We all need a prophetic mentor like Sean McGuire.