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Revisiting “Dead Poets Society”: The Importance of Found Families

It may have been 33 years since the dark academia staple known as “Dead Poets Society” was released, but if you happen to be hosting a Friendsgiving this year I think that this might be a great movie to watch either while cooking (or ordering) or after having dinner together. Set at an all-male boarding school in Vermont, away from their families, the students come together and form their own family—thus creating the titular society.

The school is a repressive environment that attempts to suppress the student’s individuality. When we first meet all of the students, it is during the opening ceremony— a drab, serious, monotonous affair devoid of most colors besides brown. Todd Anderson is established as a student whose family is largely detached from him. We don’t see his parents' faces, nor see any goodbyes shared between them. On Todd’s birthday, his parents got him stationary for his birthday that he already had. Todd is used to being seen and not heard which is why he tends to be more timid compared to the other, bolder characters.

When he is introduced to Neil Perry’s friends, Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Charlie Dalton, Todd is taken into a new family that makes him feel seen for once. A family that doesn’t compare him to his older brother and who recognizes his talent as a writer. Likewise, Neil’s own father is shown to be very domineering and disregards Neil’s own wants and passions in favor of the lifeplan he has laid out for him. Within the Dead Poets Society, Neil finds people who support him and encourage him to pursue being an actor.

Of course, I can’t forget to mention John Keating, the teacher who tells his students to “make [their] lives extraordinary”. It is because of this encouragement that Knox gains the confidence to pursue his romantic interest— Chris Noel, Neil to take on the role of Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Charlie to publish an article saying that Welton should admit girls. The boys treat each other like a family. They support each other and encourage one another in the ways that their own, cold, distant families may not, with John Keating acting like a father to all of them.

When he sees Todd hesitating to recite a poem, Keating brings him up to the front and has him improvise a poem based on a painting of Walt Whitman in the classroom— giving Todd a newfound sense of confidence. And when he sees how much Neil cares about acting, he tells him to defend his love of acting to his father. Even when he has to set them straight, instead of opting for corporal punishment to scare them into discipline, Keating reminds them that they should always think of the consequences of their actions and that “sucking the marrow out of life, doesn’t mean choking on the bone”.

It’s clear that the boys come from upper-class families, hence why they can afford a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut, but just because they are given material comfort does not mean they are given emotional comfort. When we leave home, that is the time when we start to form our chosen families, usually within our group of friends. The network of love and support that we all need as we navigate the difficulties of growing up.

Written by JD Valdepenas

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