Retro Review: Dead Poets Society- Tackling hard topics on screen


Tigger Warning: Suicide

The 1980s gave us a fantastic array of films ranging in genre and story. Films like 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street or Karate Kid, 1983’s The Outsiders, 1986’s Blue Velvet represented the sheer strength of this decade in film. However, it was not until the end of the decade that audiences would be given the 1989 Peter Weir Classic Dead Poets Society. 

Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke, Dead Poets Society stands today as one of the most revered coming of age stories in American cinema. It is a profound performance by the aforementioned actors, who showcase range and depth and are intense in terms of their emotional delivery. From Mr. Keating’s fatherly guidance to  Neil’s struggle with his father and potentially mental illness, or Todd’s learning to fit in and be himself these actors all make their characters feel like they could be characters you know. 

These acting performances are what make the film even more tragic and enlightening when discussing the themes represented and the real-world implications of the discussions started, and how they relate to those involved with the work.

This film was no Lord of the Flies, in that, the coming of age story was more of a guided understanding of manhood and adulthood. The concept of boyhood and development has often been analyzed in the film medium like with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Rowling’s Harry Potter, and even the Star Wars franchise. Miyagi, Gandalf, Yoda have all been described as some great mentor characters of cinema but Robin Willams’ John Keating is a standout. With the subtle comedy and kindness, this teacher is one of Williams’ best performances. It is the cross-sections of both the concepts discussed concerning boyhood and fatherly mentorship that really establish this as a classic with something to learn from too.

The film begins with Todd arriving at Welton academy, who at first seems to feel (or at the very least feels his life is) for a lack of better words, unremarkable. Until he met Neil who, along with his friends, helped inspire a feeling of camaraderie in him. It is these bonds that are the focus of the film. Moreover, it is the influence of people on others that is the main theme in this film. It is not only the influence that is the driving motivation of some of these characters but also the perception of the effects that these influences have on the main cast.

In an examination of Mr. Keating’s potential influences, it is important to look at the impression he made on Todd and Neil specifically. Mr. Keating upon learning that Todd had not written a poem Mr. Keating says to the class “Mr. Anderson thinks everything inside of him is worthless, …isn’t that right Todd your worst fear. I think you’re wrong. I think you’ve got something inside you that’s worth a great deal.” 

This leads Mr. Keating on a two-step approach to get Todd to let loose and let out how he feels, Mr. Keating then proceeds to help Todd think up a poem from inside him. This inspires Neil, the camera focusing on him as he watches amazed by the eloquence of his words. 

Neil Perry is a student with immense pressure from his family, particularly his father, who just wants to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor. There are plenty of different ways to analyze the film from an LGBT allegory to a biblical-like subtext or even mental health but it is the motivation to live greatly fulfilling lives and the actualization of being who you are that is the foundation of this film. Like before with Todd’s burst into poetry Neil is inspired by the words of his teacher concerning what his verse could be.

Neil later seeks the advice of Keating after his pursuit of acting was again halted by his father. Neil is passionate about acting, it is what he lives for. The conversation between the two characters is probably the best scene in the film. It presents Robert Sean Leonard’s emotional range in a beautiful two minutes. Saying emotionally “Acting’s everything to me”, Neil discusses his struggle to follow his passion while recognizing his father’s position. 

Even saying that unlike Charlie his family isn’t rich, however, his understanding is enough to deter the depth of his passions. As Neil begins to cry not knowing what to do, Keating then encourages him to stand his ground and follow his passions. The pain of the character is so believable you can’t stop watching. Smiling and Crying as he says “I’m trapped” after asking Keating if there was an easier way.

Neil decides to go on and perform in the play despite his father’s wishes, even speaking directly to his father during the performance and while this shows signs of hope for the courage potentially growing in Neil it is quickly snuffed out by his father once more. This is something that many who understand what it is like not being the ideal their parents have manifested for them can understand. 

His father tells him he is leaving Welton and becoming a doctor and with all of Neil’s hope blow out as quickly and swiftly as a nighttime candle before slumber so is his life. Neil commits suicide with no glimpse of hope in sight, it is a true tragedy. It is topics like these that are not often discussed well in the film and television formats. If 13 Reasons Why is any indication of that. However, after seeing everything this character and everything he went through, feeling the things he felt, it is hard not to shed a tear for him.

The boys are so hurt by this revelation especially Todd who is most devastated. At first, walking out into the snowfield saying what a beautiful day it was and then begins gagging. This moment is so crucial and representative of how Todd feels. He believes Neil was a beautiful person and, like his puking, rejects that he would do such a thing. Saying “It was his father”. This is such a powerful scene and its reality makes it hard to look away. They had been close and anyone who had lost someone would understand that it’s more than just hard.

Eventually, the school looks for its scapegoat and finds their Judas Iscariot. Mr. Keating served as the sacrificial lamb and is blamed for his influence on the students. However, the boys lead by Todd find solidarity with Mr. Keating standing definitely on their desks saying “O Captain, My Captain” as he accepts their gesture leaving Welton academy. 

In conclusion, the Dead Poets Society is one of the best films of the 1980s. It was the generation’s conversation starter concerning mental health and the pursuit of dreams, and what people will do to disrupt that pursuit. It is a must-watch to all looking to examine the human emotional spectrum and fulfillment. 

I give this film 10/10 Yawps, for the acting, the conversation, and for seizing the day!

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