Back-To-School Month: "Dead Poets Society" Review

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Neil Perry, Todd Anderson, Knox Overstreet, Charlie Dalton, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, and Gerard Pitts are senior students of the Welton Academy, an elite prep school, whose ethos is defined by the headmaster Gale Nolan as "tradition, honor, discipline and excellence".
3.5

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Back-To-School Month: "Dead Poets Society" Review

Rating: PG
Length: 128 minutes
Release Date: June 9, 1989
Directed by: Peter Weir
Genre: Drama

"Dead Poets Society" is set in the 1950s at the Welton Academy for boys, a conservative, traditional New England boarding school. As the story begins, the headmaster tells the students that they are expected to live up to the academy's four pillars: tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence. As the students go to class, the audience gets a sense of just how much is expected of these young boys and the pressure that weighs down on them. The overarching theme of conformity versus free thinking is well-established as the students begin their academic year.

When they get to English class, new teacher Professor Keating, in a stunning performance by Robin Williams, shocks his class with his unorthodox instructions to tear up their English textbooks and refer to him as "Oh, Captain! My Captain." Soon, outside the classroom they’re walking with new style and purpose. He tells them to stand on their desks to declare their dedication to "Carpe Diem," the idea that they should seize the day, find what inspires them, and think for themselves, rather than conform to what society expects from them.

For many of the boys, it's the first time anyone has confronted their privileged and aristocratic view on the world, and the students are motivated to revive the secret literary club that Keating belonged to when he was a student at Welton. They hold secret meetings to read poetry and encourage each other to defy expectations and experience new things. Knox Overstreet, charmingly portrayed by Josh Charles, is inspired to chase an elusive girl. The boys immediately go overboard with the lessons Keating is trying to teach them, and they bring girls to their secret meetings, drink, smoke, and publish offensive articles in the school newspaper. Professor Keating tells them that rebelling against authority should be done with wisdom, not stupidity. Without this added lesson of free thinking and enthusiasm gone too far, the movie would lose the gravitas that carries the story so well.

As Todd Anderson, the shy new kid feeling the pressure to live up to his older brother's reputation and success, Ethan Hawke gives a vulnerable and earnest performance that earned him a reputation as one of Hollywood's best young actors. When he arrives at school, Todd is too afraid and self-conscious to complete his poetry assignment, and Professor Keating forces Todd to creatively express himself in class and realize his own potential. Hawke's acting is heartfelt and authentic as the emotions of adolescence are portrayed on his face.

In another breakout role, Robert Sean Leonard plays Neil Perry, Todd's roommate. Neil is under pressure from his own family, who expect him to become a doctor. When Neil reveals to Professor Keating that becoming an actor is his true passion, Keating encourages him to join the school play. When his father discovers his son on stage, Neil is taken home and threatened with military school, and when Neil crumbles under the pressure and tragedy strikes, the rest of the students are confronted to reevaluate Professor Keating's unusual teaching methods. Leonard gives a heartbreaking performance that turns the movie into a tearjerker.

The part of Professor Keating was a pivotal role in Robin Williams' career, earning him his second Academy Award nomination, even though he wouldn't win until "Good Will Hunting," another film where he played a mentor to another young man who needed a push to force him to live an extraordinary life. A gifted comedian, Williams gave a restrained and nuanced performance that won him rave reviews.

Considered a classic coming-of-age movie, "Dead Poets Society" inspired a generation of young people to stand up and think for themselves, to avoid conformity to perspectives they didn't believe in, and to find their own paths. Twenty-five years after its release, "Dead Poets Society" is still inspiring both young and old to take risks and think independently from the norm.

As the students learn to stand up for what they know is right, they also stumble along the way, and the consequences of those lessons will last forever. It isn't easy to live an extraordinary life, and the film does not shirk from the responsibility to portray those stumbles that happen along the way to individualism.

In 1990, "Dead Poets Society" won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Robin Williams. The American Film Institute listed "Dead Poet's Society" as one of the 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars