BOSTON — College students here who haven’t seen “Good Will Hunting” are akin to those who despise Dunkin’ Donuts. Sure, they exist. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find them.
“I watched it multiple times freshman year,” said Scott Cameron, a junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I’d make a new friend and if I found out they hadn’t seen ‘Good Will Hunting,’ we’d have to watch it. This is MIT! You have to have seen it.”
Twenty years after its theatrical release, the film, penned by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, is still wildly popular among college-age Bostonians, who were infants on Dec. 5, 1997, if they were alive at all. They relate to the emotional hurdles faced by Will Hunting (Damon), a “wicked smart” yet troubled 20-year-old from South Boston. Along with hordes of tourists, students continue to visit the L Street Tavern, a Southie bar featured in the film. Some schools even screen the movie as part of welcome-week events, as Harvard senior Silvano D’Agostino remembers the university doing his freshman year.
“It’s something that’s talked about, and it’s part of the cultural background that people are introduced to coming here,” D’Agostino said.
“Good Will Hunting” picks up when Will, who works as a janitor at MIT, effortlessly solves a difficult equation on a blackboard at the school. Fields Medal recipient and MIT professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) takes notice, and, when Will is soon arrested after he assaults a police officer, the judge cuts him a deal: Will won’t be put behind bars, provided he works with Lambeau and meets weekly with a therapist.
The film, which met with praise from both critics and audiences, won two Academy Awards in March 1998. The next day, MIT pranksters celebrated the wins by lighting the windows of the campus’s Green Building in the pattern of an Oscar statuette.
Cameron, 20, credits “Good Will Hunting” with shifting his notion of MIT from a far-off place to an actual goal. He first saw the film at 14 and, years later, it remains one of his favorites.
“There’s this ideal view of MIT as this place where anyone could succeed no matter where they came from,” Cameron said. “So long as they could do the work and show off their merits, they’d be recognized, even if they were a janitor working in the halls. I was a nerdy kid, and here was this place where that was cool.”
Madiha Shafquat, a classmate of Cameron’s, has watched “Good Will Hunting” five times since starting college. “It’s, like, the MIT movie,” she said, and it’s fun to pick up on references. The “auspicious MIT Tech,” for instance, is the school’s newspaper that Lambeau promises his students they’ll be featured in should they solve the problem on the blackboard.
“It’s really funny because the Tech is the student newspaper and, like, I’ve been featured in the Tech,” Shafquat said. “It’s kind of NBD.”
While much of “Good Will Hunting” was shot in Toronto, Shafquat pointed out a few spots in Cambridge that made it into the film. The iconic “How do you like them apples?” scene, in which Will slams the phone number of his future girlfriend, Skylar (Minnie Driver), against the window of a Dunkin’ Donuts, took place in Harvard Square. Later in the film, Will and Skylar discuss his potentially photographic memory outside a nearby Au Bon Pain.
Of course, there’s more to the “Good Will Hunting” experience than recognizing MIT’s dome or aerial shots of Fenway Park. The movie depicts young adulthood authentically, according to Shafquat, 21, and that’s not common.
“I think a lot of times right now, you see this trend toward movies about growing up being gritty,” she said. “‘Oh, this is a gritty movie about real teenagers who do hard drugs and have sex.’ It’s not wrong or whatever, but there’s also this wholesomeness about this movie that’s not naive, that’s very relatable.”
The film avoids glorifying Will’s rebellion, Cameron added. Will is not presented as a James Dean-like hero when he pushes Skylar or Lambeau’s job offers away. Instead, the movie draws attention to the fear hiding behind his actions.
“It represents that transition from adolescence to adulthood where you start to make more wise decisions, to listen to the advice around you,” Cameron said. “But that transition really comes from within. He’s the one who realizes that maybe this rebellion against his potential isn’t the best for him, and it’s time to grow up as a person.”
It’s a feel-good story about the “consummate Southie kid,” according to Ron Rumble, day bartender at the real L Street Tavern, where Will drinks beer with his friends. Rumble, 62, grew up in the neighborhood and watched “Good Will Hunting” when it came out in theaters. The characters are realistic, he said, as “blue-collar kids going around, living their lives, trying to make good and trying to survive.”
There’s no “throwing people off roofs and all the foolish stuff in ‘The Departed,’ ” Rumble said. The Southie presented on-screen is one that fans of the film would recognize when they make special trips to visit the bar.
“When people come in here, they literally have the movie on their phones,” he added. “Twenty years later! It’s crazy.”
Affleck and Damon grew up across the Charles River in Cambridge, where Damon attended Harvard as an undergraduate. He wrote an early draft of “Good Will Hunting” for a playwriting class, according to a 2013 interview with Boston magazine, and that “40-some-odd-page document” eventually became the Academy Award-winning screenplay.
Harvard students may not be portrayed favorably in “Good Will Hunting,” but, according to film major D’Agostino, some see Damon’s career trajectory as a model for their own. The university has graduated other Hollywood stars as well, such as Natalie Portman and Conan O’Brien.
“It’s the dream that every kid into film here on campus has,” D’Agostino, 21, said, adding, “Having a young Harvard kid write this story and act in it himself, that seems like a good recipe for success.”
The film’s other Academy Award went to Robin Williams for his performance as Sean, a psychology professor who becomes Will’s pragmatic therapist, and one of the most memorable scenes involves him telling Will to learn from real-life experiences rather than literature. The two characters sat on a Boston Public Garden bench, which became a memorial to Williams when he died in 2014.
This scene especially resonated with Uriel Molina, 20, a senior at Boston University studying education. He remembers sitting on the bench the summer after his freshman year, he said, “thinking about who would give me my bench talk. Who would be my Robin Williams in that scenario?”
While Molina hasn’t yet found an answer, “Good Will Hunting” helped him reflect upon his own path. He aspires to one day teach in a nontraditional setting, he said, and to inspire people to reach their potential, as Sean does for Will. The film changed Molina’s life.
“Something that was always in me awoke,” he said. “It was a transcendental thing, to be quite honest.”