Coming-of-Age Movie, Drama-Comedy
Time to Grow Up
Ah, ye olde coming-of-age. It's basically—after falling in love—pretty much the #1 subject in literature and film.
Just take a gander at the typical high school English syllabus: The Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. Black Boy. Jane Eyre. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Yup—coming-of-age as far as the eye can see. And Dead Poets fits snugly in that category.
The boys of Welton are enrolled in an intense and prestigious institution. Within it, they are supposed to learn and grow into young men, ready for college and the professional world.
A certain amount of growth just comes with the territory.
But the boys of DPS "come of age" both inside and outside the classroom. Aside from the learning they do in Latin, math, and science courses, they find an opportunity to grow immensely under the tutelage of Mr. Keating, who introduces them to the importance of poetry and, with it, personal expression.
Some of the DPS, like Todd and Knox, see themselves grow exponentially. Todd morphs from a quiet and meek student into a brave young man, unafraid to read poetry aloud, and Knox gains the courage to pursue the things he wants (namely: love). Others have an experience that leaves them forever changed, for better or worse.
And yes, by "worse," we're referring to Neil. (Sniffle.)
Pass the Tissues, in Between the Giggles
Sorry, guys: Dead Poets Society isn't actually about dead poets. Byron and Gwendolyn Brooks aren't zombies that discuss the finer points of scansion, and we don't see, say, Pablo Neruda and Emily Dickinson having a ghostly arm-wrestling match.
Hmm. Someone should option a remake.
But even without the undead arguing about sonnets vs. ballads, Dead Poets still has its share of drama. Because there are more emotional struggles in this film than in a Karl Ove Knausgaard book.
Take, for instance, the story of Todd. He's the youngest in a family of high achievers, and his parents (and the Welton faculty) expect nothing less from him. His brother left a legacy at Welton so large that students still act impressed when they hear his last name. Everyone has big plans for Todd.
Too bad he can barely squeak a word. Todd struggles emotionally to even speak up in class, let alone read an original poem in front of near strangers. So when he starts to come out of his shell, we are feeling the nervousness right along with him. His triumphant final moment might even elicit a few tears from the audience. Pass the tissues.
Neil's story is a more obviously dramatic one. He achieves the high of discovering his dream and experiencing it, and the low of having his hopes dashed right in front of him. And when Todd commits suicide, the despair of every character is gut-wrenchingly relatable.
Pass the tissues, indeed.
But that's not to say that we don't have some light, funny moments to balance the drama. Did we mention that Robin Williams stars in this movie?
His classroom quips take the students off-guard; learning isn't supposed to be funny, right? He responds to an incorrect answer with a game show-style buzz, and impersonates Shakespearean actors with Marlon Brando accents.
These accents aren't unfamiliar to fans of Williams' humor. Before Dead Poets Society, he was famous for uber-comedic, energetic, and deeply silly roles in Mork & Mindy, Popeye, and Good Morning, Vietnam.
His turn as a serious teacher was surprising to many…until they caught a glimpse here and there of his trademark quips and antics. The character doesn't intend for life to be taken too seriously, and he wants to make sure "sucking the marrow out of life" isn't a painful endeavor.
The boys of Welton, too, use humor to lighten their very serious, heavy load. When left alone in Neil's room, they replace the "four pillars" with their own version:
CHARLES: Gentlemen, what are the Four Pillars?
OTHERS: Travesty. Horror. Decadence. Excrement.
Charles, a.k.a. Nuwanda, is chief amongst the merrymakers. His prank involving a telephone and a call from "upstairs" nearly gets him expelled, but for him (and the film in general), a little levity goes a long way.