In 1959, students at the elite Welton Academy find their lives shaken up by the arrival of an unorthodox English teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). He teaches them to think for themselves, tear out pages from books and stand on desks. This was before health and safety. And self-awareness.
As an impassioned educator, Keating’s motivation for teaching at an elitist prep school is unclear. Unlike Samuel L. Jackson in One Eight Seven, Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter or Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights, he’s not interested in helping those young people whose futures are uncertain. The kids at Welton Academy are already on the fast-track to becoming the 45th president. Yet here he is, teaching them his favourite literary mantras, including “carpe diem”, “O captain, my captain” and “life is a rollercoaster.” Sorry, wrong Mr. Keating.
It’s through these powerful slogans that Keating teaches the over-privileged white boys the courage to take the things to which over-privileged white boys are entitled. One kid, with the improbable name Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), takes from Keating’s teachings the confidence to chase a girl. Because that’s what boys need. This involves Knox Overtables kissing the young woman’s face while she sleeps and harassing her at school. For the Welton Academy boys, this is the height of romance. We had a different name for it at my school: being a dick.
Nevertheless, the girl (Alexandra Powers) is bowled over by Knox Overchairs’ charms and ends up falling for him. That’s only a spoiler if you’ve never seen an ’80s movie before. Where 1961’s The Children’s Hour used a boarding school setting to explore social issues with progressive attitudes and quiet dignity, 1989’s Dead Poets Society uses schmaltz and clichés to reinforce privilege. Via one particularly propestrous plot turn that Keating should have torn out of the script, the film drags its feet all the way to an ending that’s so corny and embarrassing, I was just praying for it to turn into If….
It’s not all O craptain, my craptain. There are strong performances across the (school) board. The kids include a young Josh Charles (from Sports Night) and Ethan Hawke (from everything), while Kurtwood Smith plays a dad who’s such a bastard he makes Red Forman look like Red Fraggle. And the stand-out star is Williams, whose performance provides the film’s few fun moments as Keating tries to teach the kids to carve their own path through their fusty lives. But in the end, the boys haven’t learnt to think for themselves; only of themselves.