GOOD WILL HUNTING

SUBJECTS — Medicine (Psychiatry); U.S./1991 to Present, Massachusetts;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Child Abuse; Marriage; Romantic Relationships; Fighting; Friendship; Male; Role Model; Talent; Breaking Out;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring.

AGE; 14+

MPAA Rating — R for strong language, including some sex-related dialogue; Drama; 1997; 126 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Special Note: TWM strongly suggests turning down the sound during three short scenes containing sex-related dialogue. See Possible Problems section.

THE BEST OF TWM

One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s list of the ten best movies to supplement classes in Health, High School Level.

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DESCRIPTION

Will Hunting is a tough but brilliant young man from a working-class neighborhood whose life revolves around low-skilled jobs, hanging out with friends, fighting, arrests for minor crimes, and, secretly, reading everything he can get his hands on. He suffers from a mild form of attachment disorder caused by abuse when he was a foster child. His intelligence is exceptional, and he can easily solve problems of higher mathematics that elude famous math professors. The movie presents Will’s changes as he is discovered solving a math problem presented to the best math students at a prestigious university, forced into counseling as a condition of probation, and finds a girl whom he loves.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Selected Awards: 1997 Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Robin Williams); Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Matt Damon & Ben Affleck); Golden Globe Awards: Best Screenplay – Motion Picture (Matt Damon & Ben Affleck); 1998 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Matt Damon); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Minnie Driver); Best Director: (Gus Van Sant); Best Film Editing (Pietro Scalia); Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (Danny Elfman); Best Music, Original Song (Elliott Smith, For the song “Miss Misery”); Best Picture (Lawrence Bender); Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Motion Picture – Drama; Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama (Matt Damon); Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Robin Williams)

Featured Actors: Robin Williams as Sean Maguire; Matt Damon as Will Hunting; Ben Affleck as Chuckie Sullivan; Stellan Skarsgárd as Prof. Gerald Lambeau; Minnie Driver as Skylar; Casey Affleck as Morgan O’Mally; Cole Hauser as Billy McBride; John Mighton as Tom.

Director: Gus Van Sant

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

By showing the successful treatment of a person with attachment disorder, Good Will Hunting provides a basis for studying the origin and treatment of this psychological condition as well as the effectiveness of talking therapy and the insights offered by modern psychology. The movie serves as a springboard for discussions about the role of dependence, independence and interdependence, and about the importance of empathy and emotion in relationships.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

Several: This film contains profanity and sex-related dialogue. Teachers should review the movie carefully and be sure to get parental permission before showing the film. There is a violent, but not gratuitous, fight scene. Some scenes show Will in bed with his girlfriend, but they are not actively making love.

PARENTING POINTS

If you have seen the film, you may want to draw your child into a conversation on what it may be that causes Will to leave Boston and feel OK about taking the risks of heading to California.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

Attachment Theory Applied to “Good Will Hunting”

Will Hunting has a classic attachment disorder. Abused as a child, he has trouble developing meaningful and appropriate relationships with adults and women. His only friends are among a group of young men his own age who cannot begin to compete with his intelligence. He has no empathy for people outside his close group of friends. He cannot manage his basic emotions, such as anger. If he has a disagreement with someone or if he dislikes them, he will assault them either verbally or physically. Will’s anger is one of many defenses that mask his inner feelings and guard his inner self. Will’s subconscious is determined that no one will be able to penetrate these defenses and hurt him again.

Will does not integrate his intelligence and his interest in reading with relationships, either socially or in the workplace. The reading gives him a sense of mastery and a way to distance himself from people. He uses intellectual tasks to self-soothe. (Had Will been emotionally secure, he would have shared his intellectual interests with people who could have appreciated them. When Sean asks Will to name the people with whom he has strong relationships other than Chuckie, Will names Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and several other dead intellectual giants. These “friends” could not rise from the grave and hurt him.)

Will does have strengths. His intelligence is a strength, and his choice of Chuckie Sullivan as his best friend is a strength. Chuckie is nurturing, loving, and respectful of Will’s promise. Will has the good instinct to be attracted to Skylar, portrayed as a loving and genuine person. But she is smart, and requires an empathic and loving relationship. This makes Will very anxious. She represents a risk that he cannot tolerate until after his treatment.

Attachment theory is accepted by most psychologists and psychiatrists as the best explanation for how we develop the capacity to form relationships with others and relate to our environment. It asserts that the methods we use to relate to others, manage our needs, express our demands, and shape our expectations for the world are rooted in our relationships with our early caregivers. Through these interactions we learn to balance our feelings and need states with others and to establish our varying degrees of independence, dependence, power, and control. The attachment also impacts self-esteem through the experience of conflict with caregivers.

Early attachment is established in infancy and is primarily based on the acknowledgment and gratification of basic biological needs: the need to eat, the need to drink, they need to be comfortable (not cold, hot, or wet), the need to sleep, and the need to be free from fear. This is exemplified by the infant emitting a cry reflecting a “need state,” a signal for help. The caretaker learns to recognize the infant’s different cries to determine the specific need requiring gratification. If needs are consistently satisfied, the infant learns to depend on and trust its caretakers. As the infant becomes assured that its needs will be gratified, it acquires the ability to delay gratification when hearing its caretaker’s voice or seeing the caretakers’ face. The infant understands that help is on the way. This dependence enables an infant to begin to self-regulate, to build inner strength and resiliency. The natural consequence of having one’s needs met leads to an increased ability to tolerate the discomfort aroused by the “need state.” As solutions are repeatedly found, anxiety shifts to a sense of mastery. Without a consistent history of episodes when needs are successfully satisfied, anxiety persists and dependency does not become securely established. This anxiety is reflected in future difficulties in forming trusting relationships with others and managing needs. Attachments thus may be categorized as secure or insecure and anxious or overanxious in response to early childhood experiences as an infant in getting basic biological needs met.

Once the attachment is securely established, the role of the primary caregiver changes to helping the infant learn to identify and become comfortable with its various feelings. The primitive emotions felt by infants are often raw and powerful. They can frighten and overwhelm a baby. Caregivers mirror (i.e. reflect back) the feelings the infant projects and label those feelings with words. This enables the child to make connections between its internal and external worlds. When the infant learns that the caregivers can understand the infant’s emotions, the infant’s fears and anxieties will be alleviated, and the caregiver can teach the infant techniques for managing its emotions. (This process continues through adolescence.) Physical closeness, eye contact, voice modulation, facial expression, posture, and gesture are all methods by which caregivers and children demonstrate that they are attuned to each other’s emotions. Psychologists call this process “affective attunement.” The child learns, through affective attunement, that internal feeling states are shared forms of human experience. The need for nonverbal attunement persists throughout life and is manifest through nonverbal communication and empathy.

Attachment becomes disorganized and dysfunctional in the presence of neglect or abuse. As needs are not consistently met or acknowledged, a damaged concept of self develops. Nonverbal communication is also negatively impacted. The ensuing fragmented self has difficulty regulating affect and behavior as well as managing interpersonal relations. These individuals often experience overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and shame. The infant learns to expect negative responses from caretakers and therefore begins to turn inward as a means to self-protect and avoid further disappointment. Shame reflects the infant’s self-blame for the negativity and leads to further psychic injury.

In the movie, Sean seeks to provide Will with a positive attachment relationship. This connection enables Will to create a more cohesive self-image and engage more positively with others. The beginning phase of treatment is characterized by creating a rapport based on commonality. This process was exemplified by the shared experiences of being raised in “Southie” (South Boston), a common interest in books and in lifting weights, their love for the Boston Red Sox, and their common experience of having been physically abused as children. (Even the painting served to tie Will to Sean. It was an accurate portrayal of how both of them felt.) This commonality creates hope for a future connection between therapist and client. The shared experiences force Will to see Sean as a human being, not just another adult trying to reach into his core being and hurt him. With very guarded and defensive patients like Will, this process is crucial as it reduces alienation. By showing the client that someone with whom he has so much in common it offers him a way out of his problems, giving the client a hope for change.

Once Will sees commonality with Sean, he can accept the nurturing relationship that Sean offers. The therapist substitutes for the caregiver that Will never had, filling in the gaps of Will’s development. Sean’s stories substitute for the memories, experiences, and learning that Will would have had if he had grown up in an intact family. As Sean points out, Will has never seen or experienced true intimacy between a man and a woman. To give Will some sense of this, Sean describes the intimacy of his own marriage and how he loved his wife even when she farted in her sleep. This detail reflects the closeness of the marriage and the beauty found in trusting and loving others with all their imperfections.

In treating attachment disorder, the therapist uses the phenomenon of “transference” to fill the gaps in the patient’s attachment. Transference occurs when patients subconsciously transfer to their therapist the feelings and attitudes that they originally linked with significant figures in their early life. Sean, in effect, re-parents Will and becomes the loving caregiver that Will never had. It’s not just coincidence that Sean chooses to begin the treatment in the Boston Public Garden, a place where parents take young children for rides on a small lake in boats with swan decorations.

Empathy is crucial as treatment progresses, requiring the therapist to be responsive to the patient’s emotions. Sean’s ability to understand Will’s shame and terror contains Will’s anxiety and reduces dissociation (a psychological state or condition in which certain thoughts, emotions, sensations, or memories are separated from the rest of the psyche). To resolve painful experiences, therapy must bring that pain to the surface and deal with it. Empathy allows the therapist to make the revelations of therapy less threatening and overwhelming. (In the treatment of attachment disorder, this is the substitute for the process by which the primary caregiver helps the infant learn to manage its feelings.)

One of the most evocative scenes in the movie shows this process. As Sean and Will cut through the layers of injury caused by the neglect and abuse Will suffered as a child, Will comes to the guilt which abused children so often feel. Abused children wonder why they are not loved like other children. They usually think that it must be something that they have done or due to some deficiency from which they suffer. To help Will overcome this misplaced but deeply felt sense of guilt, Sean confronts the illogic. He holds Will and reassures him, repeating, “It’s not your fault. … It’s not your fault,” helping Will to understand on an emotional level that he was not to blame for the abuse. With this realization, Will can move forward, leaving behind the vestiges of shame, worthlessness, and rage from the past.

The success of the treatment occurs when Will has enough self-confidence to accept the love offered by Skylar and to take a chance on the relationship by venturing out of the Boston area to live with her in California.

The treatment process outlined in the movie stretches the limits of traditional therapy in which the therapist strictly recognizes a boundary between the therapist’s life and that of the patient. The untraditional nature of the work is justified by Will’s stony resistance and clever defensiveness. Sean bent the rules to reach Will and without these modifications, the treatment would not have been successful. Examples of these unusual interactions include Sean’s confrontational approach and his physical touching/bullying of Will, the meeting at the lake, ending sessions early and Sean’s sharing of his own past experience. In working with adolescents and resistant clients, these variations from standard practices are often necessary.

Why Trust in Dependence is Necessary for a Mature Interdependence

Knowledge of attachment theory and the mechanism of attachment disorder enhance our understanding of dependence, independence, and interdependence in people who are psychologically healthy. No person living in society is completely independent. We are all dependent on many people: family, friends, employers, co-workers, employees, police officers, doctors, nurses, garbage men, fire fighters, etc. In higher order animal groups, long before mankind ever walked the earth, most adults provided support or care for others and at the same time benefited from the support or care they received from others in the group.

Human society is the most interdependent of all animal cultures. To thrive, individuals need to be comfortable with dependence and to trust that others will meet their needs. In addition, it is only when infants and children learn to trust their caregivers and are confident that their own needs will be satisfied by others that they can extend themselves and nurture others. Individuals obsessed with meeting their own needs without depending on others have no interest in satisfying the needs of others. People who are like Will Hunting before treatment, who fear that others will hurt them, push those others away and erect barriers to intimacy. Individuals who are strongly self-absorbed cannot develop empathy and thus have trouble developing a conscience.

Why Victims of Child Abuse Blame Themselves

In a key scene Sean, reassures Will that the abuse and the rejection were not his fault. Abuse of a child by an adult is never the child’s fault. No matter what the abuser may claim, no child has ever done anything to deserve being hit or molested.

Victims of Physical Abuse: A major psychological injury suffered by victims of child abuse arises from the message that the child is not worthy of having his or her boundaries respected. This message is a devastating blow to self-esteem. Physical abuse often follows some real or imagined transgression by the child. The abuser’s position, often yelled repeatedly, is that the child has “caused” the adult to act aggressively through the child’s misbehavior. While older kids may know the logical absurdity of this claim, younger children do not. A child of three, four or five, or even older, is totally dependent upon his or her caretaker’s for food, clothing, shelter and a host of other necessities. The adults are much larger than the child. They are more powerful, physically, mentally, and socially. They are much more experienced than the child. To the child, especially if the child is very young, they are like gods. It is hard for a child to discount the statements of these powerful figures.

Even if the abuser is silent or the child is older and understands the illogic of the abuser’s excuses, the child will wonder what about him or her is so unworthy or so disgusting that it causes such abusive actions by an adult. As the movie shows, even when the child is older and knows intellectually that the abuse was not his or her fault, the underlying feelings of inadequacy remain. As Sean McGuire repeats to Will that it wasn’t his fault, Sean pierces deeper and deeper into Will’s psyche until he gets to the heart of the boy’s hurt. This process, which usually takes months, was expertly condensed by the movie makers into one dramatic scene. (The mechanism by which children blame themselves for physical abuse is similar to that which occurs in adult victims of spousal abuse who believe that they bear some of the blame when their husbands or boyfriends beat them.)

Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Most children who have been subjected to sexual abuse by an adult also believe that they are fully or partially responsible for the abuse. First, 90% of children sexually abused by an adult do not disclose the abuse while it is ongoing out of either shame or fear or for some other reason. By hiding what is occurring, the children become complicit in what they know or sense to be an invasion of their boundaries. Second, sexual abuse entails an intimate and special relationship with the adult abuser. This gives the child-victim a sense of importance and specialness, which any child would enjoy. But children also know that the relationship is degrading to them and feel guilty for enjoying the feeling of being special. Third, in many cases the act of abuse is physically pleasurable for the child. The adult will convince the child that he or she desires to continue these feelings. The child will feel guilty about this and want to keep the act secret. Fourth, the adult abuser will use every psychological trick he (or she) knows to keep the abuse going and to keep it secret. This often includes convincing the child that it was the child who seduced the perpetrator or who continues the relationship because the child enjoys it. Most children will not be able to withstand the persuasiveness of a motivated, larger, stronger and more experienced adult. (Not all of these factors operate in all cases.) Through these mechanisms, the children come to “own” the acts of their own abuse and take on the blame for them.

The effects of childhood abuse, both physical and sexual, are often devastating. The good news is that modern psychotherapy can treat and cure the effects of abuse restoring children who have suffered from abuse to full and complete lives, emotionally and sexually.

Class Critique in “Good Will Hunting”

In many communities that host universities, there is a class division between the locals, the “town”, and the university people, “the gown” (for the gowns worn at graduation). This is another way of saying working class vs. educated elite. “Southie” (South Boston) is an Irish working class neighborhood. Millions of Irish fled to the United States in the late 1800s seeking relief from the infamous potato famines. Many of them settled in Boston and formed a large minority in the town. For decades they suffered discrimination by New England’s dominant Yankee culture.

One of the centers of academic life in the Boston area is the adjoining city of Cambridge, in which Harvard, MIT and several other universities are located. The town and gown difference is shown in many aspects of the movie, setting up conflict in Will’s relationship with Lambeau, with Skylar, with the young graduate student in the bar, and with the NSA, as well as with his own abilities and interests.

The movie criticizes aspects of both the young male culture in “Southie” and the academic/intellectual life. The young male culture in Southie is portrayed as cruel, emotionally impoverished (especially in relations with women) and sometimes violent. (It does have strengths, particularly the friendship between the boys and the love of the Boston Red Sox.) However, as impoverished as the male culture of Southie is, it is home for Will … and for Sean.

The academic/intellectual culture is criticized for its overemphasis on results, i.e., academic achievement and breaking codes (for the NSA). However, it is academic learning that developed the psychological understanding that Sean uses to help Will.

The character of Sean is a key to the movie’s class critique. Sean is clearly a product of the academic/intellectual society: he is a graduate of Harvard; he loves books; he paints in his spare time; and he is a teacher. However, Sean has not abandoned his Southie roots. (He has a long running tab at a neighborhood bar.) His acquaintance with the academic world has allowed him to grow beyond the violence, cruelty and emotional impoverishment of his Southie roots. So, too, he has not bought into the achievement-beyond-all-else rule of the academic/intellectual world. With his understanding that there are aspects of human existence that transcend both academic achievement and the Red Sox, e.g., going to see about a girl, and his knowledge of how to help Will heal from the abuse he received as a child, Sean combines the best of both cultures.

Thus, the class critique of the movie tells us that we are at our best when we can take the good from our home environment and combine it with academic/intellectual achievement within a framework of emotional maturity.

Symbolism, Plot and Literary Devices in “Good Will Hunting”

The name of the movie refers to the fact that the main character is hunting for the good Will, for the behaviors that will allow him to be good.

The fact that Will has not been out of Boston, nor on a plane, nor to any of the places that he has read about shows that his outlook is very limited. It is a metaphor for the limiting nature of psychological conditions.

The group of boys is like a gang and also a substitute family. Will is lucky that his friend Chuckie is such a good and nurturing person. Chuckie can see Will’s potential. He doesn’t try to hold Will back but instead encourages him to be himself and to grow beyond the group of friends.

The therapy really gets started in the visit to the Boston Public Garden, a place where parents take their young children for rides on a small lake in boats decorated to look like swans. This is a symbol for the beginning of Sean’s re-parenting of Will.

As characters, Will and Sean both move out of small and confined worlds to the larger outside world. Sean, who obviously could do more than teach psychology to disinterested kids at a junior college, has confined himself there following the death of his wife. The parallel movement by the characters gives the movie added depth.

The painting on Sean’s wall is a reflection of both of their characters. However, the storm waves tossing Will around are different than the storm waves tossing Sean. Will can read the meaning of the picture so well not only because of his great intellect, but because like Sean, Will feels alone in a small boat in stormy seas.

Scenes involving sexual allusions: (1) The first bar scene just before Will leaves early to work on the equation. It occurs 5 minutes 13 seconds into the DVD and ends at 5:40. Turn the sound down when Will and Chuckie enter the bar and turn the sound up when Chuckie sits down and begins to mutter about the Irish curse. This scene includes derogatory sexual references to women and shows that Will’s friends do not have empathetic loving relations with girls. (2) The bar scene when Skylar meets Will’s friends includes gross stories and references. They occur at 1:07:20 – 25 and 1:11:16 to 1:12:28, the latter is when Skylar tries to gain points by showing the boys that she can be as gross as they. (3) When Chuckie, Will and Morgan are at Chuckie’s house and Morgan comes downstairs with the baseball glove in his hand and they talk about masturbation. The purpose of this scene is to show the culture of cruelty among the boys. (4) Another scene of sexually related dialog occurs when Skylar and Will discuss the fact that men will do anything in the service of a certain portion of their anatomy, 1:07:25 – 35.

Resources For Helping Boys to Become Responsible, Caring, and Emotionally Available

Boys are often taught that they must be strong, tough, and invulnerable to emotion. “Good Will Hunting” shows that even a tough kid from a working-class neighborhood has emotions and that he can fulfill his destiny only if he gets in touch with those emotions. The best male role model in the film is Sean McGuire, the therapist who fills the gaps in Will’s parenting by telling Will of his own experiences. This film can be a springboard for class discussions about what is really important in masculinity: being responsible, caring and emotionally available.

Further reading for adults interested in this subject includes the following books: Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon, Michael Thompson; Real Boys — Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack, Ph.D.; Speaking of Boys — Answers to the Most-Asked Questions About Raising Sons by Michael Thompson, Ph.D.; and The Minds of Boys — Saving our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens.

The goal of the therapist is to crawl inside the patient’s mind and see how the patient perceives the world. Before a therapist can help a patient, the therapist needs to see the world the way the patient does.

Most parents, at times of utter desperation, have wanted to throw a child against the wall. But actually doing it is an entirely different matter. At times, parenting calls for the utmost in self-restraint.

This movie was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were in their mid-20s.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1. Will resists therapy until he finally sits in the park and listens to what the therapist, Sean, played by Robin Williams, has to say. What in this out-of-office encounter changes Will’s mind?

Suggested Response:

Will feels contempt for the other psychologists and has no faith in therapy altogether. When he senses the truth in Sean’s emotions, Will is drawn to him. Sean is not just giving Will therapy, he is expressing his genuine feelings about trust and love and the condition of being human. Will is moved by the man’s personal story and empathizes with his intelligence and his suffering. Also, both Sean and Will are “Southies” and can thus identify with one another.

2. The scene in which Sean presses onto Will the notion that “it is not your fault” has a serious impact on Will and is a breakthrough in his therapy. Why is this?

Suggested Response:

Will, as many victims of abuse, somehow feels that he must have done something to deserve such treatment. Sean is assuring Will that the abuse he faced as a child was solely the consequence of severe disorder on the part of his foster parents and had nothing to do with the boy he used to be or the man he is now.

3. Chucky is a true best friend to Will. Which scene best shows this quality?

Suggested Response:

There are two good answers. In the scene at their work site, Chucky tells Will that he does not want him to be living this lower class life; that he has a gift which will be wasted should he remain in South Boston. In another scene, Chucky discovers that Will has left town and shows through facial expression both a keen sense of the loss of his best friend and a sense of joy at the fact that Will has left town.

4. Class differences can undermine a relationship between a man and a woman. What do you see in both Skylar and in Will that will cause their relationship to get past the distinctions caused by class?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Will was clearly aware of the class differences; he knew that Skylar was living on inherited money. However, Will’s intelligence, which she holds in awe, surpasses class difference from Skylar’s point of view and suggests that love transcends class.

For additional discussion questions, click here.

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

Child Abuse

1. Is a child ever responsible for the abuse perpetrated upon him or her by an adult?

Suggested Response:

No. It is the adult who has the responsibility not to abuse a child. Adults are more powerful, older and more experienced than children.

2. Describe the effects of the beatings and parental neglect suffered by Will.

Suggested Response:

They made him distrustful of people other than males his own age. They made it so that he could not form genuine attachments to adults, especially women. They made it difficult for him to control his anger.

3. What percentage of children who are sexually abused report the abuse?

Suggested Response:

About 10%.

4. Approximately how many girls will be subject to unconsented sexual contact by an adult? Approximately how many boys will suffer this fate?

Suggested Response:

The rule of thumb is one in three girls and one in six boys.

5. Describe the mechanism by which child victims of physical abuse come to blame themselves for the abuse.

Suggested Response:

See Why Abused Children Blame Themselves section of the Learning Guide.

6. Describe the mechanism by which child victims of sexual abuse come to blame themselves for the abuse.

Suggested Response:

See Why Abused Children Blame Themselves section of the Learning Guide.

 

Parenting

7. Explain the importance of promptly giving an infant consistent attention and gratification of the basic needs for food, sleep, warmth, etc.

Suggested Response:

See Helpful Background Section, paragraph 5.

8. Why was it important for Sean to describe his relationship with his wife to Will?

Suggested Response:

An important part of parenting is to provide children with role models and a fund of stories to guide them in decisions they make in their own lives. Will had never seen a strong, empathic and loving relationship between a man and a woman and didn’t know what it was like. Sean provided him with that knowledge vicariously. Will used that emotional knowledge to gather enough trust to follow Skylar to the West Coast.

9. When a child is physically abused by a parent, what are some of the internal scars that are left?

Suggested Response:

They are lack of self-esteem and self-blame for the abuse. In extreme cases, the child will develop an attachment disorder.

 

Marriage

10. Do you know anyone who has a marriage like the marriage that Sean described? Is it possible?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to the first question. The answer to the second question is “yes”, there are many marriages like that.

11. Can marriages and romantic relationships between people of different classes, such as Skylar and Will, work out? What is special about these marriages?

Suggested Response:

This question is great for developing class discussions. Some kids will say that it’s impossible and others will say that it can be done and has been done millions of times. Whether one thinks that it is possible or impossible, the differences can make a marriage or a relationship more difficult. There is less in common and there are more compromises to make. All couples bring different “scripts” to their relationships based on their families of origin. Some of the scripts reflect emotional dynamics (loud, demonstrative, argumentative vs. restrained, cool, polite). Some scripts may be class-based and others may simply be differences in approach. In addition, the relatives may have problems with class-based differences.

 

Romantic Relationships

12. What did this movie teach you about romantic relationships?

Suggested Response:

You have to be willing to risk and you have to be willing to love. Your partner needs to be able to take risks as well.

13. Compare the relationship between Will and Skylar to the relationships with women of Will’s three friends.

Suggested Response:

What we are shown of the relationships that the friends have with women is that they are very shallow. Will’s relationship with Skylar has the possibility of becoming a strong empathic loving relationship.

 

Fighting

14. Why is fighting dangerous?

Suggested Response:

Your opponent might be like Will Hunting and unable to manage his anger. If he wins, he might not be able to stop until you are dead or seriously injured. In the fight on the basketball court it was a good thing Will didn’t have a weapon and it was a good thing that his friends pulled him off when they did. Otherwise, the guy who beat Will up in kindergarten would have been dead.

 

Friendship

15. Both Will and his friend Chuckie were extraordinary in some ways. We know that Will was incredibly intelligent. How was Chuckie extraordinary?

Suggested Response:

Chuckie was mature and nurturing beyond his years. He could see that what was good for Will was beyond his own horizons. He did not react defensively to this but instead, he encouraged Will to reach his potential. Chuckie proved himself to be a true friend to Will because he encouraged Will to do something that would inevitably take Will away from their friendship.

16. Were Professor Lambeau and Sean McGuire friends? What does this story show about their relationship?

Suggested Response:

They were friends because of the tie of personal history. Their friendship was complicated by competition. It was not a strong active friendship like that between Will and Chuckie but there was a bond of shared experiences and affection. At the end of the movie, they appeared to reconcile.

17. Sean described Chuckie’s relationship with Will as that of family, implying that he was absolutely loyal to Sean. Is absolute loyalty a good thing in a friendship or even in family relationships?

Suggested Response:

There are limits to loyalty: ethics and morality. What is to be given without question is love and affection. One should not do something unethical to support a close friend or family member. (For example, Chuckie should not have supported Will in starting the fight against the man who beat Will up in kindergarten.) However, unless the friend or family member has done something heinous, love and caring for them as a human being should not be withdrawn. Even if they do something terrible, like participating in genocide, a strong argument could be made that they still deserve affection as human beings if they repent and seek to make amends.

 

Male Role Model

18. It has been said that male maturity involves being responsible, caring and emotionally available. Which of the characters in this film most completely approached that goal at the beginning of the film? What about at the end?

Suggested Response:

At the beginning of the film it was Sean McGuire. He was a man who understood that maturity meant being in touch with his feelings. He was responsible and caring. The second character to approach this goal was Will’s friend Chuckie. While he participated in the male culture of cruelty with girls and with Morgan, he was a caring friend to Will. He acted in a responsible and caring manner when he encouraged Will to break out of the Southie lifestyle and engage his possibilities. At the end of the movie, after the psychological treatment, Will had a shot at also becoming responsible, caring and emotionally available.

19. No one in this film is perfect. But who is the best male role model in this film? Why?

Suggested Response:

The best male role model is Sean McGuire. See response to the preceding question.

 

Talent

20. Did Will Hunting have a responsibility to himself or to society to develop his talent to solve math problems?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question.

21. [For students who have seen or read Amadeus.] Compare Professor Lambeau to Salieri in Amadeus.

Suggested Response:

Both Lambeau and Salieri saw genius in another person that easily surpassed anything that they could hope to accomplish. However, whereas Salieri tried to undercut Mozart, Lambeau only tried to mentor and help Will become a great mathematician.

 

Breaking Out

22. Often, characters who break away from their home cultures and explore new ways of relating to the world find resistance from their friends and family. How are the events of this movie different than that situation?

Suggested Response:

Will’s family was Chuckie, who saw that Will’s future lay outside of Southie and who encouraged him to make the break.

23. During most of the movie, what was keeping Will from entering the new (for him) intellectual/academic culture?

Suggested Response:

His attachment disorder made him fear developing meaningful relationships with adults and women. Will had created a situation with his life of low skilled jobs, a group of three male friends, and reading alone. This world felt safe to him. (There were also dissatisfactions which is why he solved the math problems on the chalkboard at MIT (a cry for recognition), why he pursued a relationship with Skylar, and why he continued in therapy with Sean.) However, if Will really committed to this new culture he could not be sure to control the situation. He would have to interact with people of intelligence (though almost all would not be as intelligent as he), who were trained and who demanded relationships that were different from than the relationships of his status quo.

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)

TeachWithMovies.org is a Character Counts “Six Pillars Partner” and

uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.

 

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

 

CARING

(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

See Questions under the “Male Role Mode”, “Friendship” and “Romantic Relationships” categories above.

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1. Research attachment disorder and prepare a written or oral presentation on the causes of this psychological disorder and a potential process for recovery. Relate any of the symptoms to Will’s behavior in the film and address methods of recovery, which can also be related to Will’s experience.

2. Research and prepare a written or oral presentation on the history of “talk therapy” and its effectiveness against emotional disorders. Be sure to include in your report the various schools of thought in how therapy should be conducted.

3. Write a detailed narrative about Will’s life in California with Skylar: include a description of choices he will have to make and what will become of their relationship. In your narrative, describe action (including dialogue), reveal thoughts (including internal monologues), describe observations by the characters, use descriptive language (including images of people, places and things), and compare one thing to another.

To prepare for this assignment, have students complete TWM’s Exercise in “Showing Rather than Telling” When Writing a Narrative. Also, check out the Narrative Writing Lesson Plan.

4. As Sean helps Will, Will also helps Sean face his own emotional problem. As a result, Sean decides to change his life and see what he may discover for himself. Write an essay in which you explain why Sean is able to take this step and how Will helped Sean to go forward with his life.

For additional assignments, click here.

 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:

Thanks to Froma Burack, Psy.D., for writing the section on attachment disorder.

Thanks to Dr. Betty Bardige for review and comments.