I have been incredibly rough on the recent films I have reviewed. To avoid the reputation of a grumpy reviewer writing with poison pen, I am going to review one of my favorite films of a all time, Dead Poets Society. it was a joy to watch again on a sleepless night.
Dead Poets Society qualifies as personal favorite in what is a formulaic genre. You have seen the story a hundred times before. Rich, uptight kids at a prep school get a new teacher who inspires them to rebel against conformity so they can find themselves. Their rebellion, which we are supposed to cheerr, leads to tragedy as one kid cannot escape the path laid out for him and makes a drastic choice. The teacher is blamed for the consequences of the kid’s action and fired. The students stand up for him in solidarity as he is forced to leave. The end.
If I sound dismissive there, I am not. Dead Poets Society may be one of many films of the type. It is probably not the best, either. But it is the version of the story that is foremost in my mind. There, it is better to me than it probably is to other fans of the genre.
I think it is a generational phenomenon. Every generation of kids has their coming of age films about teenagers in love, struggles with authority figures, and finding their place in the world. Viewed cross generationally in comparison, those films are bound to be up and down in quality. But on a personal level, this is my movie about finding my own voice. It speaks to me. Therefore, it is good, even if it is a paint by numbers story in which events are products of the drama rather than drama itself.
Sure, it is a given the new teacher, Mr. Keating, played by an unusually subdued robin Williams, is a free spirit who will run afoul of the powers that be. Of course his students will slowly grow to rebel against the expectations of the school administration, their parents, etc. most definitely said rebellion will lead one kid to decide he would rather die with the slight taste of freedom he has experienced than go to military school like his father wants. Yes, Keating will pay for the boy’s suicide. Yes, his students will stand up for him anyway.
Also assured is that I watch Dead Poets Society, predictable as it is, as hypocritical as it is with the students conforming to Keating’s style of rebelling against conformity, with as much enjoyment as I did back in 1989 as a child stuck in a fundamentalist Christian school with very little encouragement to find my own voice. That is the baggage I bring to the film, and that is why I love it.
I realize Dead Poets Society is idealized to the point of melodrama. It is not true that there lies within all of us a Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Yeats, Wilde, or any other writer or artists whose work will be immortal. Most of us could not pen an episode of Two and a Half Men for that matter. What happens when you have gone too far down that road and finally realize it? To put it bluntly, there ain’t nothing wrong with being an accountant or selling real estate and yes, even practicing law like I eventually chose to do. Every now and then, it is good to be reminded there was once a time when much more seemed possible.
Rating: **** (out of 5)