There’s a lot to like about Good Will Hunting, and much of it is deeply engaged with American identities and communities: first and foremost there’s Robin Williams’ career-best performance as Sean Maguire, a South Boston child genius turned Vietnam vet turned therapist for fellow Vietnam vets turned mourning widower seeking to rediscover the spark that he has lost along with his wife; but there’s also, among other things, a pretty incisive if quick set of portraits of different Boston communities, from the Southie of Will (Matt Damon) and his friends to the Cambridge of Harvard and MIT; and a really interesting multi-generational American narrative, with Williams and his college roommate (Stellan Skarsgard) representing in this analysis two very different paths that the nation took after the 60s and Will and his British immigrant and fellow orphan girlfriend (Minnie Driver) a new generation coming to grips with its past and making its hesitant way forward. But to my mind, the one scene that the film—and its wunderkind young screenwriters Damon and Ben Affleck—didn’t quite nail is also perhaps the most important: Will and Sean’s breakthrough in therapy. Damon’s performance in the scene is phenomenally good, but I just don’t buy that Sean’s repetition of “It’s not your fault” in relation to Will’s history of abuse is enough to shatter decades of repression and avoidance.
Therapy in general and breakthroughs in particular are, it seems to me, particularly difficult to capture on film, as they require the kinds of patient and gradual and multi-part conversations that can drag the pace of a film to a virtual halt. Similarly, much of what defines teenage identity and experience (and Will is either a teenager or a very early twenty-something, I would say) is in a lot of ways quieter and more inward-looking than can be easily captured in a film; it’s no coincidence that many of the most acclaimed movies about teenage life are, like those made by John Hughes, all about putting teenagers together in places and sequences where they have charged and impassioned conversations, drawing out those introverted identities. For a single film to capture both what it means to be an individual teenager and what therapy can ideally accomplish is thus an extremely tall order. But I would argue that there is such a film in our history, one that is known to many film buffs mainly as the movie that (in this view) robbed Raging Bull of its Best Picture Oscar: Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980). I’m not going to debate the Best Picture question here—Bull, like most of Martin Scorcese’s films, doesn’t work for me nearly as well as it seems to for most viewers, but in any case the two films are so different as to reveal just how subjective and inconclusive the idea of choosing one as the year’s Best Picture really is. But I most definitely will stand up for Redford’s film on its own terms.
There are lots of ways to make that argument, including those that have little to do with teenagers or therapy: the perfect pairing of Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland; the best use of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” in any movie; the cinematography and especially how well the film captures the textures and details of its suburban settings in fall and winter; the moments of humor that provide just enough balance to keep the film from being dominated by its darker tones. But what makes Ordinary People truly great, and truly revelatory about its core themes and experiences, are two central performances: the unbelievably impressive film debut of a 20 year old Timothy Hutton as the movie’s protagonist, Conrad Jared, to my mind the most rich and realistic teenager in any American film; and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s unusual, sarcastic, and very committed therapist, Dr. Berger. The therapy sessions between the two of them form the movie’s core and heart in every sense, and are allowed to develop with precisely the kind of patient, gradual, quiet, multi-part pace about which I wrote above; by the time they, and we, come to the breakthrough, aided by a new tragedy in Conrad’s life and one of the most judicious and best uses of flashback I’ve ever seen, it feels entirely believable and convincing, not least because it’s partial and painful and represents, without question, only a step (if a crucial and literally life-saving one) on Conrad’s continuing journey toward health, happiness, and a more balanced and realized sense of himself and his identity and future.
Interestingly enough, Good Will Hunting gives its great last line to Williams’ therapist (whose own rich character trajectory will definitely continue beyond that ending), while Hirsch’s character is absent from Ordinary People’s final scenes (which are devoted instead to the culminating conversations between first Moore and Sutherland and then Hutton and Sutherland). But perhaps that’s part of my point about Redford’s film—therapy, like teenage life, is ideally a stage of experience, and while Conrad Jared has not left either entirely behind by the end of the film, his time with Dr. Berger nonetheless feels as if it has reached a satisfying conclusion. More tomorrow, on a new Early Republic community of working women and two very distinct literary representations of their lives and voices.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Good Will Hunting’s breakthrough scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92D15qtI_Gk
2) The first ten minutes of Ordinary People (I’m not gonna ruin the breakthrough scene in that one, you’ve got to watch the whole thing!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2-r6kgIu3g&feature=related
3) OPEN: Any teenage or therapy films or scenes that do it for you?
Hey Ben, great topic and great post. I definitely see how the movie’s breakthrough could be seen as a bit too spectacular. In watching the scene again, however, I think that it just might depend on the viewer's interpretation of what promise this "breakthrough" holds for Will. We know that Will cries in response to Sean's words, but are we to believe that Will is cured? For the first time in his life, does he genuinely believe that it's not his fault? I would argue that the scene doesn’t necessarily imply this degree of change, in which case it may become a bit more believable. My viewing is that, for Will, it just felt really fucking good to have an older man (a sort of replacement attachment figure) tell him that it's not his fault, and not let him walk away. And while Sean was able to create a safe place for Will to be vulnerable, I wouldn’t expect Will to generalize this experience to the rest of his life, and go out into the world as a less-defended, less-angry person. In short, I see the “breakthrough” here as Will’s willingness to cry, which is actually a pretty small step for the amount of times that Sean and Will have met. I would expect the therapy to really begin from this point forward.ReplyDelete
Now, of course, I don’t remember how the movie develops after this scene, and perhaps therein lies the problem. Does Sean conclude things with Will? Does Will go out and get the girl and live happily ever after? Perhaps a little nuance in the denouement could have helped.
Thanks for the thoughts! I like that reading of the scene a lot, and it would actually make it line up that much more nicely with Ordinary People's scene, where Conrad crying and hugging Dr. Berger is a huge moment as well.
I do think that the movie after this ties things off a bit too neatly--it's the last therapy scene we see, and the next time they're together Will is thanking Sean and they're ending the working relationship at least for now--but also that things are left still open and in development for Will in all sorts of ways, so your reading would work for sure.
Thanks Ben, and in response to your question, I can't think of any good, believable breakthroughs depicted in film. It just seems so incredibly difficult to pull off. "Shutter Island" was a good movie, in my opinion, but the breakthrough was tough to swallow. And don't even get me started on Annakin Skywalker's unbelieveable transformation from good to bad (and Lucas had 3 movies to do it). HBO's "In Treatment" Season 1 was excellent, probably because they didn't depict any major breakthroughs that I can remember.ReplyDelete
Haven't seen Shutter (speaking of Scorcese!) or Treatment, but do want to check out both at some point. And yeah, the less said about Anakin, the better.ReplyDelete
Have you seen Ordinary People? I think it does pull off the breakthrough about as believably as I've ever seen, maybe in part because it's based on a novel (although I think the movie is better than the novel, actually).
I loved Ordinary People, but I remember the family dynamics better than I can remember the son's individual story. I'll have to watch it again.ReplyDelete