The film was written by the young actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who resolved not to sell their script unless they could play the lead roles themselves. Their self belief is justified by the effortless power of their performances - easily the best reason for seeing the film. Damon plays Will, a janitor at MIT who impresses a lecturer (Stellan Skarsgard) by solving complex mathematical problems. It transpires that Damon is a boy genius, though his talents are disguised by his proclivity for causing trouble. When Skarsgard gets him out of jail on the condition that he attends counselling sessions, Damon works his way through a series of disgruntled psychologists (including a lovely cameo by George Plimpton) until he meets the introspective Robin Williams, and a relationship flourishes which seems destined to thaw out the Arctic surfaces of both men.
While this is undoubtedly the closest that Van Sant has come to conformity, embracing the sentimental excesses of mainstream American cinema rather than subverting them as he had always seemed destined to do, there are flashes of idiosyncratic daring which couldn't have come from any other film-maker: an early fight scene which slips between slow and fast motion almost by accident, or the sensitive and subtle hints of homo-eroticism in the way the camera notices everyone noticing Damon (and indeed in the way the camera explores him inquisitively).
But although this is driven by a gutsy and truthful screenplay and some sparkling performances, it is finally a piece of work heavy with resignation and compromise.