Sean K. Cureton

Empathy in the Youth Film

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on November 19, 2014 at 11:30 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Good Will Hunting (1997)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Released to near universal critical acclaim in 1997, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting is a youth film, written by its young stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, at the very beginning of their respective careers, largely memorable due to its incredibly effective distillation of the hubristic follies of young adulthood, charming in its innate self-assuredness, a veritable Catcher in the Rye of the late 1990’s. And yet, much of the film is carried on the shoulders of the Oscar winning supporting role given by the late, great comic actor Robin Williams, whose turn as Damon’s therapist is moving in its authenticity, belying the respective artifice of the surrounding drama, including Damon’s titular role, the film clinging to Williams’ inability to turn in a false performance, his deep well of humanity imbuing the film with all of the empathy that the script lacks even the awareness of. Likewise, Van Sant feels aimless and lost in his direction of the film, unable to take the viewer anywhere interesting or tangible, moving from one passing point of interest to another without providing a larger dramatic context for much of the film’s capricious ennui, the entire film shapeless and ephemeral, tonally and thematically vacant. Damon and Affleck have both proven themselves to be creative and capable performers, but Good Will Hunting is not their greatest work, marking it as something of an oddity, its credible encapsulation of the universality of youth its simultaneous flaw, the film coming off as prophetically hopeful for a future that is still unrealized in the minds of its protagonists, not to mention its screenwriters. For all intents and purposes, Good Will Hunting is a good movie, capturing the aimless antics of its precocious miscreant accurately, but without grasping the larger poeticism of his world, Van Sant’s film in the same state of arrested development as its subject.

Throughout the film, Damon’s Will Hunting is presented to the audience as an immediately likable protagonist, troubled by a past that remains as vague to the audience as it does to the film itself, Hunting’s history of domestic abuse at the hands of his foster father as believable as any of the other lies Hunting employs over the course of the film in order to remain detached, immune, and incapable of the responsibilities of adulthood, as personified by Stellan Skarsgard’s professorial interest in Hunting’s innate mathematic abilities. Despite the script’s sophomoric good will towards Hunting’s trials and tribulations, his memorable wooing of Minnie Driver’s moneyed pre-med student made problematic by his own self-loathing and lack of self-worth, much of the internal drama feels shallow, lifted from greater scripts and stories to no effect when translated to the film’s dramatization of working class Bostonians. Left with no scriptural evidence for his protagonist’s deep soulfulness, Van Sant is forced to shoot several sequences in which Damon lounges with an air of disgruntlement, his constant slouching and listless gaze indicative of a humanity that is dramatically absent, leaving the film cinematically listless as well. Damon and Affleck attempt to gain the audience’s sympathy again and again, imploring the viewer through scene after scene of weighty dialogue, attempting to present Hunting as a misguided Boston tough worthy of praise and upward mobility, his erudite and pithy demeanor one worth saving. And yet, for all of the empathy that the script seems to feel for Hunting, Hunting feels none for the viewer, divorcing Van Sant’s film of the empathy in its protagonist that is necessary for any dramatic catharsis to feel well earned, as opposed to the abrupt inconclusiveness on display in Hunting’s climactic departure for California.

In order for a film about the turmoil of youth to work, there must be a base line from which the audience may empathize with the film’s protagonist, and that protagonist must in turn be capable of empathy, else the audience feel disconnected from the film in much the same way that the protagonist feels disconnected from the world. At the time when Good Will Hunting was written, Damon and Affleck were barely out of their 20’s themselves, and thus still caught up in their own personal journeys of self-discovery, lending their script much of the tumultuous and unformed aura of their own respective immaturities at the time. While some of this irreverence for and of the world undoubtedly lends the film much of its viscerally driven appeal, Damon’s Will Hunting and Affleck’s Chuckie Sullivan as eager to move onward and upward as the stars themselves, this eagerness largely comes off as ignorant navel gazing, assuredly striving towards something greater that is still clouded by the ego of young adulthood. After all, one of the most deceptive aspects of youth is its assuredness that everything is easily remedied, as one’s solutions at the time predominantly extend only so far as to help oneself, the larger world still far off in the realm of full blown maturity and a more worldly understanding of other people’s needs, hopes, and desires as compared to your own. Will Hunting definitively reaches personal discovery by film’s end, but his decision to leave town without letting anyone know, including his new employers, marks his final decision as one made without any forethought, his development in a state of continual arrested self-involvement, getting the girl but not coming of age, marking Van Sant’s film as shallow and incomplete, its centripetal preoccupation with youth as stunted and belligerent as an unruly teenager.

For all of its atonality and narrative missteps, Good Will Hunting is persistently watchable, carried by Robin Williams’ respective maturity and empathy, lending Damon’s Will Hunting just enough humility and pathos to evoke sympathy in the viewer for his plight. And yet, despite the compelling likability generated by Williams’ award worthy performance, the sympathy that is generated in the viewer comes off as overtly manipulative, marking the film as the irretrievable dramatic failure that it always has been, a youth film where the adult is the real hero. Where other great coming of age masterpieces situate their young protagonists at the moral center, Damon’s Will Hunting must be taught empathy from an elder, his own ability to emote stunted by a preoccupation with the self that proves to be too all-consuming to allow for any true dramatic progression on his own terms, causing the film to sputter and gasp for air in a deluge of self-pity and painfully rendered, self-aggrandizing monologues, apologetic, but never sincere. Contrastingly, Mike Nichols’ 1967 opus, The Graduate, imbues Dustin Hoffman’s anti-hero with all of the morals and guilt that should by all rights be found in his elders, which is why the ending is so satisfying, the two youths escaping one corrupt adult world for another of their own potential making and subsequent undoing; in a similar vein, Robert Redford’s 1980 tragedy, Ordinary People, is moving in the way in which it leaves Timothy Hutton’s emotionally scarred survivor, having braved his way through both literal and figurative storms only to find himself alone on the shore, finally a man, but weighed down with all of the trappings and responsibilities rightly associated with his newfound maturity. Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting is as harrowing and tumultuous a drama as either of these two greater films, but without any sense of true progression, dramatic or otherwise, Damon’s titular youth in much the same way as he was at the start of the film, sympathetic perhaps, but incapable of the type of empathy that is necessary to the youth film genre’s continued relevance and poetic resonance, Will Hunting respectively withdrawn and figuratively restrained, Van Sant’s film a study in emotional stagnancy.

Good Will Hunting is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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