I was 12 years old the first time I saw Good Will Hunting, and roughly one hour into the film, I knew it was the most amazing movie I’d ever seen. But these were immature, surface reasons. The characters’ constant and creative uses of profanity, and their hasty penchant for street violence, immediately excited and entertained the 12-year-old me. I laughed hard and paid close attention to the profane vernacular that Will Hunting and his friends so freely possessed.
But then something happened. Something so profound and unsettling, that my immaturity concerning the film immediately vanished. It was a moment I didn’t expect, and one that I’ll never forget.
This scene in Good Will Hunting has been ridiculed as much as it’s been revered, parodied as much as lauded. It’s a scene late in the film, directly after therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) has had a brutal argument with his old college friend, Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). Will (Matt Damon) interrupts them, and Gerald quickly excuses himself, leaving Will and Sean alone. The two briefly talk about the abuse Will suffered as a foster child (something Will has refused to discuss until now). Sean shares some horror stories from his own past, abuse he endured at the hands of his alcoholic father. And then, sensing that the tension has to break, Sean begins quietly telling Will that all this shit he’s been through is not Will’s fault. “It’s not your fault,” he says, once, twice, ten times. With each utterance, Will becomes more visibly unconformable, and, briefly, violent, before breaking down and sobbing in Sean’s arms.
And that’s when it happened. That’s when Danny Elfman’s gentle music swelled and the film cut to a shot of Robin Williams’ face. A face of immense and unique satisfaction. A face only a father wears when comforting his son. A face that understands.
There are no words, or rather, no words I can clearly form, that encapsulate what that look meant to me. It was a look that said, It’s all right, other people understand – we understand. I remember sitting in the theater, trying to shield my tears, tempted to get up and leave. It’s never easy to be presented with such an emotional moment. My first instinct, especially when I was younger, was to remove myself from such situations, pretend as though it didn’t happen. But, much like Will Hunting, I sat and let the comfort of the moment wash over me. I gave in. I broke through.
I could go on.
His perfect Oscar speech; his immense sensitivity as Robert De Niro yelled “Learn! Learn! Learn!” in Awakenings; donating blood at Ground Zero mere days after 9/11; his riotous appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio; the time I saw him live in my college town, Richmond, Virginia, where he spent the majority of his set making fun of Richmond’s persistent obsession with “coming in second place in the Civil War”; how, in 2002, he delivered his two finest straight-drama performances, first as a stone-cold psychopath in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, and, three months later, as a tortured, confused, and complex soul in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo; how, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that his work in Mrs. Doubtfire is one of the bravest performances he ever delivered; and how to this day, if I’m ever feeling the slightest bit down, I’ll put on his Live on Broadway stand-up special from 2002, and let the laughs take me.
I could go on, and I likely will in the days ahead. But for now, I’ll leave you with the gentle and accepting eyes of Robin Williams. Eyes that have, and will continue to, comfort me.
I recently turned 29, and the older I get, the more I consciously choose to remember my life in moments. I’ve long since accepted and dealt with those daily nightmares from my youth, and now I make the choice to remember moments of peace, happiness, and inspiration. I remember kind eyes and smiling faces. Faces that let me know that, eventually, things will be all right, and, more importantly, that someone else understands.