1997: Good Will Hunting for the Right Decision

I’ll be the first to admit that I probably let fear play too big a role in my decision making, but I like to believe it is a fault a lot of us have. I used to not worry so much, which is a wonderful side effect of youth. In my younger days, I viewed decisions from the perspective of wrong or right. Nowadays, I realize that framework only leads to quite a bit of frustration, as decisions are more easily grouped into easy and hard and further divided into worth it and not.

At its core, Good Will Hunting is really a movie about fear and decisions. You have a kid (yes, kid, you may be shocked to remember Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is supposed to be 20) who had all the potential and intelligence in the world. With that know-how, you would think finding a way out of a working-class life with no parents, a criminal record, and only one friend he can actually rely on would be a piece of cake. It seems like an easy decision to take advantage of his photographic memory and propensity for math and make something of himself.

Xenophobia, the fear of the unknown, is a very real thing for some people though, Will included. I am related to several of these people. When I took a job that required a lot of international travel, my mom asked me, “Why do you want to go to another country? Everything you need is here in America.” My grandparents couldn’t understand why I would go to college all the way in California when I could’ve gone to Western Kentucky University for free. Minus the eff bombs and the thick South Boston accents, they are Will Hunting and his band of misfits.

I’ve always loved this movie, but I used to have a problem with the ending. Will chooses neither a life in South Boston nor a life among the math elite, but instead heads off to California, “to go see about a girl,” and it always seemed a bit like a deus ex machina moment for me. Like Will never had to make a real tough decision because the answer is true love. Congrats Will, it’s not your fault and you get to go hang out with Minnie Driver in San Francisco. You think you’ve made a breakthrough in therapy, but here you go running away from the big decision again.

Now that I am a little older and the leaps of faith I made in my younger years are harder to get off the ground, I realize how tough it was for a closed off person like Will to have enough faith in another human being to be there, to be worth it. In fact, of the three options, this one isn’t the easiest, it is probably the hardest. It is pretty easy to figure out if a job is for you or a living situation is for you. When you meet someone and they aren’t like anyone you’ve met before, you aren’t sure If these new feelings are a sign to run or a sign you’ve hit the jackpot.

A good chunk of people tend to live their life trying to keep big changes to a minimum, not realizing they may be doing themselves a disservice in the long run. Going through each day not making any changes seems easy in the moment, but it is also how you end up with a job, a spouse, a life that is simply okay, but is certainly not what your dreams were made of. It was easier for Will to believe he didn’t deserve to be loved too. Sure, he was setting himself up for a lonely life, but at least he knew it was coming and there wasn’t a chance to get his heart crushed again. You underachieved, but your soul survived intact.

There are people who are okay with that kind of life, who would rather take option A than get devastated again. There are people who are willing to make the occasional big decision and take the chance that it is worth the risk, and there is the cast of the David E. Kelley show The Practice. If you remember this show, the lawyers of Robert Donnell and Associates chose a career in which these tough decisions were a weekly affair. You might also remember that these characters are virtuous and awful all at the same time. If you haven’t watched, imagine the characters of Scandal in a law firm. There are certain things they value most, like lost causes and doing something wrong in order to accomplish what they think is right. The initial premise of the show was that the firm was kind of like Robin Hood, defending deadbeats and drug dealers in order to keep the business going and allow them the time and money to defend more noble causes.

It’s a weird kind of idealism this show espouses. They make the decisions look a little tough, but in the battle of protecting the innocent or potentially getting disbarred, they opt to possibly ruin their careers pretty much every time. Jimmy Berlutti ends up at the firm because he forged loan documents at his old job to keep them afloat.  Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) in particular has  a crisis of conscience every week, but it is never a choice between right and wrong, really. It is a choice between right and righter, and it sets an awfully high bar for how much us viewers have to be willing to heave ourselves upon the sword for a good cause. Or, as this scene illustrates, throwing your friend under the bus.

The really difficult decisions though are not the ones in which two paths are clear and you need to pick one. The really tough ones are the ones where you can’t even take action until you figure out what it is you need to choose to do in the first place. Will Hunting has a grasp on his emotional issues, but he subconsciously chooses to push people away rather than take a risk and let someone in. He is aware, but until Robin Williams’ character causes him to break down and let out all those emotions that come along with his thoughts, he can’t really accept that he has to make a decision about letting people in.

Whenever I hear the old Sister Hazel tune All For You, I get a bit of a smile on my face. As music came out of the melancholy haze of grunge, a glut of incredibly cheerful songs hit the airwaves like Deep Blue Something’s Breakfast at Tiffanys, Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, and the rise of Third Eye Blind.

All For You fits right in that mold. It is a fairly simple love song really, but I always enjoyed how it was a story of a guy who finally realized what has been staring him in the face all this time. He tried to find somebody else besides this one particular girl, but in the end, “all the roads, they lead to you.”

It is a romantic conceit common in romantic comedies, the idea that your best friend or the person you never thought of in another light or someone you were once with but never fully got a chance to give it a good try is the person for you. There is usually a very obvious moment where eyes get bigger, where eyebrows raise, and the protagonist literally takes off running to tell that person they were wrong.

While the song isn’t exactly complicated, it does depict a more realistic portrayal of how this happens. It isn’t an a-ha moment, it is a period of thinking you might feel a certain way, trying to deny you feel that way, trying to decide whether these feelings are worth the risk, and hopefully, the elation that follows when you take the risk and it turns out right.

We get inundated with this elation, this moment where you make a decision and it works out like you hoped for. There aren’t a lot of pop culture artifacts in which someone makes a huge mistake they can’t recover from. Another Matt Damon vehicle, The Talented Mr. Ripley, comes to mind. It also reminds me how many people, including myself, have a hard time watching what is a well-made movie because seeing a guy descend into something he can’t fix is uncomfortable and depressing. We as a culture like those movies and TV shows that affirm us that risk is good, but we need the occasional Will Hunting or The Practice episode to at least remind us that decisions are rarely easy, consequences are real, but there are some things are well worth taking a chance on.

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