Gus Van Sant has made by far his most commercial film with Good Will Hunting, the impressive screenwriting debut of young actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who also star. This poignant drama about the emotional awakening of a troubled working-class prodigy is significantly more intelligent than the usual movie portrait of college-age youth, and should have strong appeal beyond that audience.

In a breakthrough performance, Damon plays Will Hunting, a tough South Boston orphan who works as a janitor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Will is a typically brash, scrappy, directionless Irish-Catholic kid, with one major difference-he possesses a phenomenal photographic memory and an unparalleled mathematical genius. Except for some occasional barroom showboating, the boy keeps his gifts under wraps, but he can't resist surreptitiously solving math challenges that have been left up on M.I.T. blackboards. When Will is arrested after punching a cop, he's rescued by a complete stranger-Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), a prize-winning math professor who's uncovered the secret sage and offers to keep him out of jail in exchange for private sessions. Lambeau also demands that Will see a therapist; after outwitting and alarming several doctors, he finally meets a worthy opponent/ally in Lambeau's old college roommate Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), a professor nursing his own private psychological wounds.

Williams' role combines aspects of his dramatic turns as the teacher in Dead Poets Society and the psychologist in Awakenings-unconventional men whose skewed perspective helps them reach out to someone in need. The zany star turns in a solid and heartfelt performance, but it's Damon's dynamic characterization that really sets this movie apart. Damon, who recently made the move from strong supporting roles in films like School Ties and Courage Under Fire to the lead in The Rainmaker, has written himself a plum part: a complicated young man who views his extraordinary intelligence as something of a curse; an alternately charming and arrogant movie hero hiding emotional traumas that make him cling to his working-class roots. Thanks to Damon's bright, focused portrayal, the audience sees the potential in this flawed character and roots for him to break past his hard outer shell.

But Good Will Hunting is no actor's ego trip. Damon and Affleck provide substantial moments for all the movie's major characters. The strained relationship between Will's two adult mentors, McGuire and Lambeau, is given nearly equal weight with the main story, as their own individual paths in life reflect different approaches to the matter of fulfilling one's destiny. Skarsgard, the ill-fated husband in Breaking the Waves, brings passion and audience empathy to the part of a mathematical scholar who feels awe, frustration and envy in the presence of Will's genius. The much-employed Minnie Driver (Sleepers, Grosse Pointe Blank), using her own charming British accent for a change, has her best film role to date as Will's love interest, a Harvard student poised for heartbreak. Co-writer Affleck, the lead in the indie hit Chasing Amy, brings ample charm to his supporting role as Will's best buddy, who selflessly urges him to move beyond the dead end of his South Boston neighborhood. Ben's brother Casey Affleck (To Die For) and Cole Hauser (All Over Me) add amusing color as Will's other good-time cronies.

Van Sant, the celebrated director of Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For, serves the screenplay with surprising discipline, considering his taste for bold visual flourishes. Still, the film offers as vivid a feel for the subcultures of Boston as any young writer could hope for, with effortlessly stylish work by cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (Gummo, Les Amants du Pont Neuf). The film only betrays itself as the work of first-time screenwriters in its impulse to tie things up neatly and send the audience home feeling good about its deeply troubled characters. But, in all, Good Will Hunting is a most accomplished writing debut for two young actors with a solid future as Hollywood hyphenates.

--Kevin Lally