Cinema therapy is an aspect of psychotherapy that is gaining attention these days. This approach involves the therapist's suggestion of various films that relate to the issues the client wants to address. Film's power to help and to heal, and therefore complement that therapeutic process, may be one of the most interesting aspects of practicing psychotherapy. In this realm, Robin Williams has contributed immensely to my professional performance. His characters seemed remarkably human and believable. I've suggested many of his meaningful films to therapy clients: The Fisher King, The World According to Garp, and even Mrs. Doubtfire.
I routinely encourage clients to watch Good Will Hunting, which stands out as one of the most interesting and psychologically sophisticated films about intimacy. Monday morning, a client in her 50s was expressing her anxiety about spending time in the evenings with a new boyfriend after many years on her own. I suggested that she watch Good Will Hunting. I then did my best to describe a particular scene in the film that takes place between therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) and client Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in which Williams gives a riveting and hilarious description of intimacy. My client smiled and we laughed together about the scene, and she made a note in her phone to watch the movie sometime soon.
Little did I know that on Tuesday I would be listening in tears to the same exact scene on NPR today when Terry Gross's 2006 Fresh Air interview was re-aired to mark William's tragic death at age 63:
Will: [about Skylar] This girl is like, you know, beautiful. She's smart. She's funny. She's different from most of the girls I've been with.
Sean: So call her up, Romeo.
Will: Why? So I can realize she's not that smart, that she's... boring? Y'know? I mean... this girl is like... perfect right now. I don't want to ruin that.
Sean: Maybe you're perfect right now. Maybe you don't wanna ruin that. I think that's a super philosophy, Will. That way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know anybody... My wife used to fart in bed when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful idiosyncrasies... She used to fart in her sleep! [they both laugh] Sorry I shared that with you. One night it was so loud it woke the dog up. She woke up and gone like "Oh, was that you?" I'd say yeah... I didn't have the heart to tell her....[continued laughter] Oh god...
Will: [laughing] She woke herself up?!
Sean: YES!... Oh Christ....aahhh, but, Will, she's been dead two years and that's the [stuff] I remember. Wonderful stuff, you know, little things like that. Ah, but those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That's what made her my wife. Oh, and she had the goods on me, too; she knew all my little peccadilloes. People call these things imperfections, but they're not. Aw, that's the good stuff. And then we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds. You're not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense. This girl you met, she isn't perfect either. But the question is: whether or not you're perfect for each other. That's the whole deal. That's what intimacy is all about.
Many people enter therapy because they are struggling to make a decision about commitment. Or maybe they are experiencing anxiety about getting close to someone for the first time. Sometimes, getting close to a romantic partner can produce tremendous anxiety, especially for those who have not been exposed to healthy, intimate relationships.
Directed by Gus Van Sant, Good Will Hunting is an intense and inspiring coming-of-age film about friendship, loyalty, and living up to one's potential. It is also a remarkable exploration of intimacy and fear of commitment. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck became overnight celebrities as the writers and co-stars of this film for which they shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. And Robin Williams won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a product of the foster care system living on the South Side of Boston and working as a janitor at MIT. He begins solving complex equations on the blackboard that have rendered the elite university students stumped. It turns out that Will Hunting possesses the kind of mathematical genius that comes along once in a lifetime. After assaulting a police officer, Will represents himself in court and avoids jail time by agreeing (reluctantly) to meet regularly with a therapist. To say that Will resists his work with therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) is something of an understatement. The therapy is somewhat unconventional, and the breakthrough moment is an over-simplification of the therapeutic process; however, the therapy serves as a remarkable backdrop for an exploration of intimacy, fear of commitment, and the human struggle to live up to one's potential.
What is unusual about this film is its ability to explore intimacy and commitment in a way that feels honest and real. The intimacy that transpires between Sean and Will functions as a model and a catalyst for Will's emotional healing. This film demonstrates that sometimes the most important aspects of parenting may not take place with a biological parent. The human ability to connect on an intimate level with friends, mentors and teachers may fill gaps that parents have been unavailable or otherwise unable to provide. Sometimes people who were not properly protected or nurtured by their biological parents figure out ways to meet these unmet needs through developing formative relationships with parent figures so that they do not get stuck in unhealthy patterns and instead develop the ability to experience intimacy and live up to their potential.
If you are struggling with the question of whether to take an intimate relationship to the next level, viewing Good Will Hunting could be a worthwhile step in your decision making process. If you are grieving the loss of one of the most gifted actors of all time, this film features some of his best and most beautiful work.
Many of my therapy clients expressed profound sadness over William's apparent suicide. His art, his talent and his aura helped people feel less isolated and more hopeful.