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Remembering the Wonderful Little Idiosyncrasies of ‘Good Will Hunting’ on Its 20th Anniversary

In honor of the movie that made Matt Damon and Ben Affleck famous, a deep dive into the small moments that make it so memorable

Portraits of Matt Damon in ‘Good Will Hunting’ in different neon colors Miramax/Disney/Ringer illustration

Halfway through Good Will Hunting, an excellent movie, a pivotal scene happens. Sean Maguire, a gifted and compassionate therapist played brilliantly by Robin Williams, is in the middle of a session with Will Hunting, a charming but guarded genius played very well by Matt Damon. It’s finally gotten to the point where Will is beginning to entertain the idea of trusting Sean, and so he mentions to him that he’s begun dating a girl (Skylar, played perfectly by Minnie Driver). Will expresses that he’s afraid to continue to see her for fear of finding out that she’s not perfect, to which Sean responds by telling him that what he’s afraid of is the girl finding out that he’s not perfect, which then turns into a discussion about how nobody is perfect alone, but sometimes people are perfect together.

As a way to arrive at that point, Sean tells a quick, funny story about an embarrassing eccentricity his deceased wife used to have. “My wife used to fart when she was nervous,” he says. “She had all sorts of wonderful idiosyncrasies. … She’s been dead two years and that’s the shit I remember. Wonderful stuff, you know. Little things like that. But those are the things I miss the most.” It’s a magnificent and touching moment, but it’s also wildly insightful. It is, I would argue, as good of an examination of the footing of any meaningful thing as has ever appeared on film.

It is also, as it turns out, the entire point of this article. Because consider the movie itself as an example. Good Will Hunting feels important and impactful because of its big moments and big scenes—the ones identifiable by a single setting or line: the Harvard Bar Argument scene, the park bench scene, the “Say you don’t love me” scene, the “Do you know how easy this is for me?” scene, the “It’s not your fault” scene, the “The best part of my day” scene, etc. But what makes the movie feel truly alive and special are the smaller things, the tiny things—all of its “wonderful idiosyncrasies,” as it were.

So, Tuesday, on the day of its 20th anniversary, we celebrate those things. We celebrate:

  • That airy music that makes you feel smarter. Danny Elfman scored the film. He also handled the music on, among other films, Men in Black, which came out that same year. I saw Men in Black the weekend it hit theaters. I didn’t see Good Will Hunting until four years later when I was in college and the woman I was dating made me watch it. If Matt Damon had been in a music video dancing with an alien, like Will Smith did for the Men in Black promo run, I probably would’ve seen Good Will Hunting earlier.
  • That slight ting in the back of the airy music that lets you know that everything is not perfect. Danny Elfman is a genius.
  • Cole Hauser. There are four people in Will’s group of friends. There’s Will, there’s Chuckie (played by Ben Affleck’s hair), there’s Morgan (played by Casey Affleck), and there’s Billy (played by Cole Hauser). Cole’s Billy—quiet, fiery, intimidating—is the most harrowing of the bunch. I wish there were a Billy spinoff. It feels a lot like he was into some gnarly shit when he wasn’t with the other three.
  • The way Will and Chuckie don’t say anything to each other when Chuckie first picks up Will. Them not saying hello to each other might be a sneaky hat tip to how the movie is eventually going to end with them not saying goodbye to each other. It might also just be a thing where they didn’t say hello because guys are rude idiots sometimes.
  • The way Will pushes the mop. It happens at the beginning of the movie right before Will solves the first math problem on the board. We see him come out of a janitor closet pushing a mop and bucket. It looks so foreign to him in his hands. It’s a lot like when Andy was pretending to be a janitor on The Office. (The opposite of this is when Will is throwing pitches to Chuckie at the batting cages. It’s very clear that Matt Damon has played a ton of baseball. His form is impeccable.)
  • The way Chuckie says, “She’s missing a tooth, Will. She’s got skin problems,” after he asks a girl why she didn’t try to have sex with him and she says that he has a tiny penis. One of the best scenes in the movie is the aforementioned “The best part of my day” scene. In it, Chuckie explains to Will that he knows he’s going to have to live his entire life in South Boston (he makes this admission as a way to explain to Will why he has to chase down the opportunities laid out in front of him). It’s really a sweet thought and does a lot to show the kind of gold heart that Chuckie has, but also it’s heartbreaking too because Chuckie proves to be an exceptionally likable character. That’s why it’s fun to squint a bit and pretend that Chuckie grows up to become Batman.
  • The way Will solves math equations on a mirror. You can always tell how smart someone is by where they write their math equations. If a guy writes a math equation on a mirror or a window or any other place you wouldn’t expect to find one, you know he’s a genius. (Remember when Eduardo wrote the formula on the window in The Social Network? Or when John wrote the formulas on the window in A Beautiful Mind? Or when Christian wrote down the formulas on the windows in The Accountant?) Conversely, if a guy writes a math equation on a piece of paper then that’s how you know you’re dealing with a math simpleton. (Remember when Shea Serrano wrote the formula down on a piece of paper in his remedial math class in college?)
  • The way Chuckie pretends to charge Will after Will keeps brushing him back from the plate when they’re at the batting cages. I knew Chuckie was a very good and loving friend when Will beaned him with a baseball on purpose and Chuckie didn’t try to fight him.
  • The way Professor Lambeau leans in and creepily says, “Unless you wanna have a drink with me tonight,” when one of his female students approaches him on a Saturday and he reminds her that it’s Saturday. Professor Lambeau being gross is a thing they lean into just enough to let you know that the good things he’s trying to do for Will are just good things for himself. (The other time it happens is when Will is in a meeting and he’s out in the lobby with his feet up on a couch talking about how math is erotic.) (Math is not erotic.)
  • The way Matt Damon smiles when he’s caught off guard by something someone’s said. The best example is when they’re in the Harvard bar and Chuckie is hitting on Skylar and her friend and Clark (the guy with the ponytail) comes over and she says, “Clark, why don’t you just go away?” and then the camera cuts over to Will and he gives the tiniest non-smile smile.
  • The way Chuckie snarls when he says, “Here’s your fucking double burger!” and throws it at Morgan when he’s giving Morgan a hard time about having had to pay for his burger. It is so hard for me not to shout this at my children every time they ask me for something.
  • The way the camera moves when Morgan hits that one guy during the fight scene. It’s jarring. They shoot it like you’re the one getting hit.
  • The way Will shouts, “Hey, fuck you!” at Professor Lambeau when Lambeau catches him solving the second math problem on the board and thinks he’s defacing it and keeps yelling at Will about it as Will walks away. If you want, I bet you could get away with making an argument that this scene was meant to serve as foreshadowing that Lambeau was never ever going to be able to understand or handle Will’s brilliance.
  • The way Chuckie walks toward the girls at the bar. He hunches up his shoulders a bit and does an exaggerated walk toward them. It reminds me a bit of when Cruz does it at the party in 1993 Blood In, Blood Out, though obviously Cruz’s entrance is a much grander happening.
  • The way Will’s shirts have holes in them.
  • Clark’s frazzled ponytail.
  • The way Will leans in to propose a fight with Clark. That’s how you know he was serious about fighting. If Will wanted to just show out for the girls, then he’d have been really loud and blustery so everyone could see and hear the confrontation. He wasn’t, though, which is why you see Clark get filled with fear so quickly. As soon as Will lowered his voice and proposed stepping outside, Clark was like, “Oh fuck, this guy really wants to fight.”
  • The way Will reads a book at a clip of two seconds per page. I thought that this was a situation where they’d messed up in the movie, but it turns out that reading that fast is an actual thing. In fact, Howard Berg, who holds the mark recognized by Guinness World Records for speed reading, reads EIGHTY PAGES PER MINUTE, which is ridiculous.
  • The way Will says “You really hypnotized me, you know” to the second therapist he sees, mimicking his voice while doing so.
  • The way Lambeau leans way over the table while eating dinner with Sean. This one caught me off guard when I rewatched the movie. Lambeau is hunched all the way over the table. It’s very weird.
  • The way Will ignores Sean’s bench-press question when he realizes that Sean can lift more weights than he can. One of the secretly great things they did with the roles of Sean and Lambeau is, in addition to making them the philosophical opposites of one another, they also made them physically the opposite of one another. Lambeau is tall and slender and delicate and clean-shaven. Sean is short and stout and sturdy and bearded. They’re each physical representations of the things they care about the most, which is to say Lambeau is obsessed with the theoretical and the academic and Sean is obsessed with the real-life application and practicality of intelligence.
  • The way Will ignores Sean’s Van Gogh South of France thing. That first scene where Will and Sean tangle with each other is great. Sean does a wonderful job of letting Will know that he’s capable without ever making him feel like he’s a threat. (Until he grabs him by the throat, of course.)
  • The way Will’s eyes get bugged when Sean grabs him by the throat. Shooksville.
  • The way Skylar talks with food in her mouth.
  • The way Skylar laughs when Will makes a sex joke on their first date. Has any movie girlfriend ever been more charming than Minnie Driver as Skylar?
  • The way Will tucks his shirt into his pants. He doesn’t do it with all of his shirts, but he does it with his sports shirt for some reason.
  • The way Will says “Big time” when he’s trying to convince Sean that he’s had sex before. It happens during one of their early counseling sessions. Will is responding to a comment that Sean had made in an earlier scene in the movie. He says it out of nowhere. He says, “I have been laid, you know.” Sean says back, “Really?” Will, in the best and clumsiest way possible, responds, “Big time. Big time.” It’s exactly the kind of response you’d expect from someone who either (a) has never had sex, or (b) has had sex once before. It’s easier to forget when you’re watching the movie that Will is only 20 in it, but there’s a real chance that he’s a virgin at that point. (It’d help explain why he was so eager to get Chuckie on the phone at four in the morning when Skylar tells him that she won’t have sex with him again until she gets to meet his friends.)
  • The way Will laughs so hard during the fart story that his nostrils move.
  • The way Will transitions from laughing when Sean is talking about his wife farting to being taken aback when Sean starts talking about how she is dead.
  • The way Will looks at Skylar while she’s watching the dog race. It happens when they’re on another of their dates. They’re at the dog races and she’s watching the dogs through the binoculars and she’s screaming and cheering and having a grand time and Will, oblivious to everything else that is happening around them, is just staring at her, being all the way in love. You get the sense that he’s thinking about Sean talking to him about the way he loved his wife, about how it’s the little things you grab hold of. Or I don’t know. Maybe that’s just me projecting.
  • The way Will backpedals when he thinks he’s offended Sean. It happens when Will and Sean are in a session together and he asks Sean if he ever thinks about how his life would’ve been different if he’d never met his wife. Sean corrects him, saying, “Do I wonder if I’d be better off without her?” As soon as he says, Will retreats, saying that’s not what he meant. It’s the first time real time we see him express any kind of substantial contrition.
  • The way Will says, “Jesus Christ, you know the fucking day?” It happens when Will asks Sean how he knew that his wife was the one for him. Sean immediately responds with the day that he knew (which he remembers because it was the day of a big World Series game). You get Will being funny, but also you get that caught-off-guard smile that I mentioned earlier, too.
  • The way Will says “WHAT?” when Sean tells him that he skipped the World Series game to have a drink with his future wife.
  • The way Skylar says, “Hook, hook. Dunk, dunk,” when she’s talking about the idea of her playing in the NBA one day.
  • The way Chuckie looks at Will after the “brothers” comment. This one happens when Will takes Skylar to meet Chuckie, Morgan, and Billy. As the night ends and everyone is walking outside of the bar, Will tells Skylar that they’re going to go home. She says that she was hoping to meet his brothers. When she does, Chuckie, who realizes that Will must’ve lied about having brothers because he doesn’t want to tell her that he’s an orphan, is instantly crushed. It’s very sad.
  • The way Chuckie dresses when he goes to the job interview pretending to be Will. I don’t know how there’s not yet a Movie Friends Hall of Fame thing, but when there is, Chuckie is getting a first-ballot entry.
  • The way Will snidely barks, “I’m holding out for something better,” at the end of his monologue when he recounts turning down the chance to work for the NSA breaking codes for the government.
  • That soft voice Sean talks with when he wants to be comforting. I want for Sean Maguire to be my therapist so, so bad.
  • The way Morgan gets out of the car and happily runs to the front passenger seat at the end of the movie when Chuckie tells him that Will is gone. Not nearly enough has been made of the fact that, just because he can, Morgan decides to go into Chuckie’s mother’s room and masturbate into a baseball glove.

Good Will Hunting is so good.