As the leaves turn and deadlines quickly approach, this time in the school year is particularly stressful and particularly beautiful. When it gets difficult to remember the beauty in the midst of the stress, that is my cue to turn on Dead Poets Society. For those who don’t know, Dead Poets Society is a 1989 film set at a prestigious boarding school in 1959. A group of young boys led by Neil Perry (portrayed by Robert Sean Leonard) are inspired by their new English teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams). He ignites in them a love for literature and poetry through the Dead Poets Society; as they meet up in a hideaway to recite poems and “suck the marrow out of life”.
The boarding school portrayed in Dead Poets Society, Welton Academy, is an environment dedicated to preparing its students for ‘greatness’ through any means. Discipline and tradition are pillars of the school, and the boys who attend are expected to excel and go on to careers in medicine, banking, and law. This is enforced even more strictly by their parents; Neil’s father is particularly clear that he will not tolerate his son doing anything that interferes with becoming a doctor.
The magic in Dead Poets Society is a combination of many aspects of the film. The academic setting, slightly grainy footage, and warm colours perfectly emulate the experience of academia in autumn. The cast – especially Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke (who portrays Todd Anderson, Neil’s roommate) – give beautiful performances. Neil and Todd’s every interaction is brimming with energy and connection. Mr. Keating’s lessons to his class are both sentimental and unrealistic, which has been pointed out by many TV shows (including Community and Derry Girls, both of which do so hilariously). But especially in the present cultural environment where it seems genuine emotion must never break through layers of sarcasm and irony, Robin Williams’ wholehearted delivery and passion as Mr. Keating is a breath of fresh air. Neil’s desperation to be understood and accepted by his parents, especially in contrast to his vivaciousness with his peers, is deeply felt. Todd’s reaction to Neil’s death is hard for me to watch even after countless viewings, but perhaps most painful is watching Mr. Keating cry for his deceased student knowing that Robin Williams died in the same way.
This is not to say that the movie is perfect. The romantic arc between Knox Overstreet, one of the boys in the Dead Poets Society, and a girl from a different school falls flat to me. It is rushed at best and includes some questionable consent for a kiss at worst. This doesn’t impact my enjoyment of the rest of the movie too much, but every individual will feel different about it, and if that turns you off of the whole thing that is entirely fair (perhaps try Good Will Hunting or Gilmore Girls).
The endeavours of the Dead Poets are filled with electricity and life. The boys read, sing, play instruments, dance, yell, and laugh, imbuing their meetings with a powerful sense of joy. Their schoolboy antics outside of the meetings are also delightful to watch. I particularly love the scene in which Todd tells Neil that his parents have given him the same desk set as a gift for his birthday as they had the year before, and the boys throw the desk set from a bridge. Despite the pressure being put on them, these boys feel so young and alive. They bring to life the movie’s message of “carpe diem”.
The vibrancy of the boys makes Neil’s death all the more tragic. The romanticisation of suicide is incredibly dangerous, so to me the pain of Neil’s death is one of the movie’s virtues. Every time I watch Dead Poets Society, I feel the pain of Neil not getting to grow, to experience a future he deserved. I feel the crushing pressure he was under and the hole he left. I also think of my peers, both from high school and now. Most of us can understand the pressure that Neil was under. Almost everyone I have met in this school has chosen or heavily considered a degree that will lead to job prospects in the future over one that they are passionate about or they are doing a joint degree in one ‘practical’ subject and one they do for fun. Dead Poets Society reminds me that no matter how someone appears on the surface, everyone has battles to fight. It reminds me of how important it is to be kind and to love people without requirements, and how important it is to seize the day.
School can be extremely overwhelming, and the pressure that comes with deadlines and assignments can be more stressful than the assignments themselves. We need to let ourselves breathe and to let ourselves live, but this is easier said than done. The spirit of Dead Poets Society captures this beautifully. It encourages me to find beauty in nature, in poetry and the written word, and in connection with others. Hopefully it can do the same for you.