I loved this film. Of course, I avoided it with a passion when our high school English teacher was raving about it. He more or less judged the class based on how much they would take to the film. I suppose that if I had seen it then, I would probably write it off as a misguided attempt to capture youth with too many helpings of cheese. Yet, when all is said and done, as an adult the film is a brilliant ode to youth.
The story takes place at an elite boarding school for boys sometime in the 1950s. Many of the kids there are rich while others have made their way into the school on academic merit alone, while their parents sacrifice to pay the tuition. The boys are smart and wholesome but like all boys have a natural rebellious streak stoked by their abundant hormones. They are really nothing more than tadpoles soon to become lawyers, doctors and business men. They are all more or less resigned or maybe even content with the lives that lie ahead of them and somewhat self-aware that even with the course load that comes with going to a prestigious school, these are the last of carefree days as they approach adulthood and get shouldered with heavier expectations and responsibilities.
Robert Williams is an unorthodox teacher who comes to the school to teach English after his predecessor retires. Though an alumni of the school, he refuses to conform and begins his tenure by taking the boys to the hall of fame, showing them students of ages past, making them aware of the fact that many brilliant young men have passed through these halls, bright-eyed and invincible, never to fulfill their destiny. He gradually wins over the students as he leads them to see literature not for stale classics but as words to capture the zest of life and nourish their soul, by first ripping out the introduction of their textbooks outlining a misguided way to “scientifically” grade works of literature according to a fixed scale plotted along a graph.
The boys go on to resurrect the Dead Poets Society after finding an obscure reference to it by digging up their English teacher’s yearbook. Though nothing more than sneaking out at night to a secluded cave to read poetry, prose or original compositions and mull over love and life, the secret club creates an awakening that gradually changes their lives and “seize the day (carpe diem).”
Yet this awakening ultimately acts as a catalyst to a great tragedy as their new found freedom clashes with authority.
It’s one of those movies where everything just comes together. All the actors are young but extremely talented (and amazingly the lot of them don’t seem to have done much of note since this film), the script is good, and the setting is perfect. Just like America in the 1950s the boys are awakening from a more innocent era into unknown territory. The final moments of the film were priceless. You almost want the movie to end happily, to see them all blossom into manhood with their newfound freedom. But like many good films, it’s not meant to be.
Dead Poets Society