I first watched Dead Poets Society with my family when it was released in theatres in 1989. I was in my final year of elementary school at the time, so I was several years younger in age than the main characters in the film. Yet the film exerted a profound impact on me that hasn’t diminished to this day.
John Keating (Robin Williams) is a new literature teacher at a boys’ high school known as Welton Academy, located in Vermont in the U.S. From his first class, his unorthodox teaching methods engage the students’ attention and inspire them to follow their dreams. But there are also consequences to his deviations from the norms of teaching. The film focuses on a diverse group of classmates: Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) has always been the cream of the crop in his studies, but his life is ruled by his domineering father (Kurtwood Smith). Todd (Ethan Hawke) is a painfully shy newcomer who happens to be assigned as Neil’s roommate. Charlie (Gale Hansen) has a rebellious streak, while Knox (Josh Charles) unexpectedly falls into a romantic attraction through a family friend.
Dead Poets Society is first and foremost an actors’ piece. Willliams steals the show in a performance that affords him the perfect blend of comedic flair and understated compassion. But the film’s real stars are the cast of teenage actors who were largely unknown at the time and who embody their characters to perfection. Leonard is charismatic but internally torn apart by the restrictions placed on his life. Hawke depicts Todd’s shy awkwardness with a relatable authenticity. Somewhat regrettably, only Hawke went on to have a significant acting career.
An underrated aspect of the film is its direction. Peter Weir wisely allows the story and the characters to speak for themselves. His direction is stylish but unobtrusive, conveying the beauty of the Vermont countryside across the seasons, as well as the austere learning environment of Welton Academy. It perfectly complements Tom Schulman’s alternately humorous and dramatic screenplay.
The most memorable scene in the film is one in which Keating asks Neil to read a conventional introductory passage from a textbook, then proceeds to tear it down for its misguided approach to the topic. To add a physical flourish to this lesson, he then urges students to rip out the chapter containing the offending passage from their textbooks. After some initial hesitation, the students fulfill this request with such gusto that another teacher enters the classroom demanding to know why such behavior is taking place.
From an educational point of view, what Dead Poets Society teaches us is to never be afraid to try something out of our comfort zone. The conventional wisdom is to do things “by the book”: to follow the established norms and methods of classroom learning. But when someone dares to step outside the norm, it can reveal a whole new perspective of the world. At the same time, to take such action in a situation where it is frowned upon opens oneself to criticism and other serious consequences.
unorthodox (adj.) – not following the usual rules or beliefs in a certain situation
the cream of the crop (idiom) – the best within a certain category or class
domineering (adj.) – trying to control other people and making them obey you
unobtrusive (adj.) – not attracting much attention from other people
austere (adj.) – strict and serious in manner
gusto (n) – joyous, enthusiastic or passionate enjoyment or appreciation