Dead Poets Society (1989)

One of Robin Williams’ most memorable performances is his role as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Directed by Peter Weir, the film explores themes of identity, family, friendship, and coming of age.

Set in 1959, the film begins on the first day of school at the elite, all-male Welton Academy. The story centres around Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), and their group of friends as they’re introduced to the unconventional teaching methods of Welton’s new English teacher, John Keating.

Keating addresses his class for the first time by uttering a line from Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain!” This line became an iconic phrase after the release of Dead Poets Society. It repeats as the film progresses, foreshadowing the ending.

Keating encourages his students to seize the day and make their lives “extraordinary.” He inspires them to become free thinkers and to live life on their own terms. Keating tells his class, “Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” He forms a bond with his students, and inspires Neil and Todd to recognize their interest in the arts. The boys gain an appreciation for poetry and revive the Dead Poets Society—a secret poetry club that Keating belonged to when he was a student at Welton. During club meetings, the boys gather in a secret alcove in the woods to read poetry to each other.

The film raises many important themes, namely identity. Through Neil’s character, the film depicts the struggle of embracing art as a practical job pursuit. Throughout the film, Neil’s father (Kurtwood Smith) dismisses Neil’s passion for writing and acting and pushes him towards medical school. Without his father’s knowledge, Neil performs in a school play after being encouraged by Keating to pursue his dreams. Neil’s conflicting desires to pursue his passions and obey his parents is a relatable struggle.

Although Dead Poets Society contains thought-provoking, and often troubling moments, the quirkiness and wittiness of the characters create an overall feel-good experience. The bond between the students and Keating is inspirational, as Keating continuously poses ideas of embracing life and not doubting yourself.

Dead Poets Society tells a story of a teacher who motivates his students to find their place in the world and appreciate their worth. As Keating says, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

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