“Dead Poets Society” is a maturing into adulthood drama whose story and messages are as instructional as they are inspiring. The film is like an inspirational teacher, the one in high school that changed the way you thought about life and knowledge. It reflects this in Mr. Keating, the teacher who touched the lives of a group of teenage boys for the better despite the monstrous obstacle of conformity in all their paths.
Directed by Peter Weir (“Gallipoli”) and written beautifully by Tom Schulman, “Dead Poets Society” stars Robin Williams in one his first great dramatic performances as Keating, an English teacher at an all-boys boarding school who inspires his students with poetry and by encourages their own free thinking with the simple motto of “carpe diem (seize the day).”
But the film is really about the boys and their various struggles. Todd (Ethan Hawke) is quiet and keeps to himself — he’s scared of personal expression. Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) is living in the iron grip of his father (Kurtwood Smith) who insists he become a doctor when his passion is really acting. Knox (Josh Charles) discovers infatuation/love and the courage it requires and Charlie deals the barriers of free speech. Keating’s lessons inspire their actions and bring out new parts of themselves and together they hold Dead Poets Society meetings in a cave in the woods.
The clique of rebellious teenage boys and their unusual teacher are not motifs foreign to film, and neither are themes of fighting conformity and making the most of life. Most adults know all about these ideas — they’re not exactly profound and original — but Tom Schulman tells “Dead Poets Society” in such a way that allows you to rediscover them and reawaken memories of what that personal experience was like. We see the rigid culture and system of the school and the classroom and then suddenly Keating comes in and makes learning what it should be. Suddenly we remember who our “Keatings” were and what it was like when we finally learned the value of our own perspectives, ideas and most importantly, desires.
The cast of young men is excellent. They make sure no character entirely falls into a teenage stereotype despite their many personalities that make up the group dynamic. We remember our own youthful enthusiasm through their experience and empathize with their troubles.
Weir’s direction leads us gracefully into this rediscovery. His use of symbolism and the subtle ways he re-implants elements of the classroom scenes into the students’ subplots and other key moments of the film draw us back to the power of the learning experience and how it can leave such a fine imprint on our lives. We see clearly how those scenes with Keating give life to the rest of the story and rekindle our memories and ignite our emotions as we connect to the characters and their experiences.
“Dead Poets Society” is a great execution of a simple inspirational drama/tragedy. Despite having all the elements, it avoids cliché much of the time or at least masks it with the strong connection the story builds with its audience. Many films have been more dramatic or original, but this film really gets the most out of what it is and tells a story about something universally human to which every soul with even the slightest meaningful education experience can relate.