Poor socio-economic conditions are obvious within the lives of the main characters from the very beginning of the film as Will is picked up in an old car from a dilapidated house with a great deal of junk in front of it. These shifts to an Ivy League scene complete with rowers on the seemingly private river and the somewhat smug discussion of the teacher and reactions of the student. Will himself is present in the halls as a janitor who cannot resist the challenge of a math problem he sees in the hall. His ability to solve the problem illustrates the way in which his economic position has limited his opportunities as he should have been earmarked for higher education from grade school. His status is defined by his job as a janitor and his activities, such as sitting in the upper bleachers of the local baseball game, riding around in his friend’s car, discussing issues of money such as not having more than 16 cents for a fast-food sandwich, getting into street fights and being arrested. While he has obviously not benefited from formal education, Will is very well educated from his own efforts within the county library. However, as the college student in the bar points out, without the benefit of a formal degree recognizing his knowledge, he will still be reduced to menial labor, particularly since he has a criminal record.
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There are several things that contribute to Will’s problems, including a lack of money. However, he is also the product of the foster care system, indicating he was never provided with a stable home environment or family, and the judge indicates at least three of these homes were abusive, indicating the failure of the state to protect him. Having entered the legal system as a young child for outward expressions of anger and a justifiable resentment against authority, it is unlikely that he will ever escape the system without assistance. While money plays a significant role in accomplishing this for him, enabling his liberator to wield appropriate power to secure his release, it is not sufficient to solve all his problems or to bring happiness to his life. Once he is rescued from the streets and offered a chance at higher education, he continues to hang out with his friends because he has learned that money doesn’t offer the same kind of satisfaction that friendship loyalty offers him. This reveals that money can’t buy happiness, but that happiness is based on something else more important.
The movie attempts to show that mental health, and the ability to accept others and form real attachments to people, are more important than the things money can buy. However, taking advantage of one’s every opportunity to escape the routine of the slums and the humdrum existence of the common man is always preferable to stay in place, despite what rifts this may cause between the self and these same childhood friends that have provided support, loyalty, and companionship to this point. Freedom and equality are offered as something based upon common understanding and a willingness to share with others the intimate details of one’s private life rather than being a question of money and prestige. This is not only demonstrated through the path taken by Will through the film, but also the restored relationship between Sean and Gerald Lambeau once understanding is reached regarding differing definitions of success and failure.