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Film / School Ties

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Retroactive Recognition all over the place.

School Ties is a 1992 film about anti-Semitism in a 1950s prep school, directed by Robert Mandel and co-scripted by Dick Wolf.

The film has mostly been forgotten (outside of tolerance education classes), and is probably best known now for being the originator of an extremely obscure Family Guy homage. Despite the film's relative obscurity, it does have the distinction of being one of Brendan Fraser's first leading roles, his first dramatic leading role, and one of Matt Damon's first leading roles.

The plot concerns David Greene (Brendan Fraser), whose football skills earn him a scholarship at an extremely prestigious— and unthinkingly conservative— preparatory school in the early 1950s. David must keep his Judaism secret while he grapples with the class differences between him and his new peers.

This film provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Powerful Student Council: David's fate is left in the hands of a student council biased against him. However, several characters seem aware of this, David included.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: When David confronts Dillon that he knew that the latter cheated, Dillon resorts to trying to apologize and bribe David into keeping his mouth shut.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Though he was obviously Jewish from the start to the audience, David may have come across this way to his fellow students.
    • His very name "David Greene" exemplifies this. The first name David and the surname Greene are both relatively common among Jews, but common enough among Gentiles that nobody automatically assumes someone with either of those names is necessarily Jewish.
  • All for Nothing: David endures the bias of an Absurdly Powerful Student Council, only to learn at the last second that a prefect also knew Dillon cheated but didn't say anything to the others, putting him through the ringer for nothing. David is understandably pissed.
  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: David's Berserk Button.
  • Berserk Button: David is generally a nice, polite, studious and even-tempered guy, until you make Jew jokes or threaten his friends. This is kind of scary, given that it's not unbelievable at all that David (played by an even then over 6-foot-tall Brendan Fraser) is a quarterback.
  • Big Game: one relatively early in the season happens during Rosh Hashana, when David's father tells him to go to temple instead. David plays anyways, but sneaks into the chapel to do his prayers later.
  • Bittersweet Ending: David is cleared of the cheating charges, and his biggest enemy in the school has been expelled, but he's still a pariah among the majority of the students, he's lost his popularity, he's lost his girlfriend, and he's going to continue facing significant anti-Semitic bullying for the rest of the school year. Still, the film ends on a positive note, with his confident, borderline impertinent words to the headmaster ("You used me for football, I'll use you to get into Harvard") implying he's learned to accept the situation and will no longer allow it to distract him from his goals.
  • Boarding School: Yep.
  • Call-Back/Meaningful Echo: When Dillon accuses David of cheating and David throws his anti-Semitism back in his face, Dillon admits he's been a prick but the Jewish stuff doesn't matter. At the end of the film, after Dillon tells David that in ten years "you'll still be a God-damn Jew," David retorts "and you'll still be a prick."
  • Colonel Bogey March: Used to harass David.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Sally Wheeler breaks up with David because he kept his religion a secret.
  • Diner Brawl: David gets into one with some motorcycle punks at the start of the film, which serves as an Establishing Character Moment for him.
  • Dirty Coward: The prep school boys, big time. They're used to hiding behind mommy and daddy's big money and big name, rather than face their problems head-on. They also resort to passive-aggressive insults and pranks rather than insult someone to their face and avoid facing David directly, knowing he could easily clobber them in a fight. The biggest instance is when David finds a swatstika in his room, and no one comes forward when he issues a public challenge to the culprit.
  • Driven by Envy: Dillon starts out envying David Greene because he got the quarterback position he wanted. After learning more about Greene's life, he outright tells Greene that he envies the fact that his life won't be ruined if he doesn't make it into a prestigious college because he has more to him than just a wealthy family. Then, during a football game with his family watching, Dillon tries to show off, screws up a play and Greene uses him to block a tackle and win the game. It's not until he learns that Greene is dating the girl he loves, though, that Dillon becomes outright hateful.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: At the school dance, three girls from the other school are making googly eyes at three younger boys. Instead of making a move, one pulls the other's finger. The girls then turn away with rather disgusted looks on their faces.
  • Elaborate University High: St. Matthew's certainly qualifies. Lampshaded by David as he's driven through it for the first time.
    David: Jesus Christ, this is a high school?!
    Coach: It's your high school now.
  • The '50s: Yes indeed.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Richard "McGoo" Collins is an anti-Semitic Jerkass who picks on David the most once everyone finds out the latter is Jewish, who happens to wear glasses.
  • Genius Bruiser: David is a star football player and a tough street brawler and smart enough to keep up with the academic requirements of the school and to possibly get into Harvard.
  • Gilded Cage: McGivern is the most obvious victim, though most of the primary characters are under immense pressure to follow in their families' footsteps.
    McGivin: "4 generations of McGivins have gone to Princeton. If I don't get in, it means the blood has gone thin. It means they all have cocks and I just have a weewee."
  • Greedy Jew: Jokes are made to this extent in David's presence; he tries to ignore them with middling success. Given he's also the token working-class student, it makes even less sense. Not that bigotry ever needs to make sense, as many real victims of prejudice will tell you.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Dillon hates David before he even learns he's Jewish because he's jealous of him for "stealing" his spot as a football quarterback, and his girl.
  • Heroic BSoD: After it's already been established that the wealthy kids around David are stressed out by the reputations they have to live up to, McGivern is ridden particularly hard by Cleary during a French recitation, blows it, and has a nervous breakdown. After a day of desperate searching, his friends finally find him in the French classroom, catatonic and mumbling the poem he was trying to recite. He's carted off in an ambulance.
  • Honor Before Reason: Comes up a bit.
    • David feels honor-bound to answer every insult with a fight, which other characters call him out on. They know how foolish it is for him to jeopardize his one chance to get into Harvard because some schmuck mouthed off.
    • When he realizes Dillon is the one who cheated, he goes to him in private about it to encourage him to come forward; this gives Dillon the chance to sabotage him and make it look like David was the one who cheated.
    • The history teacher who insists on making the cheater come forward or fail the entire class, rather than just throw out the old final exam and make a new one. He claims that since someone in his class broke the honor code, the entire class's honor (and his) is impugned by association until the cheater comes forward.
  • Irony: The class claims Dillon couldn't have cheated since "he had no reason to" due to coming from a Harvard legacy family while David just arrived this year, then proceed to explain they "have" to get into the Ivy League colleges their parents went to; completely oblivious to how they just spelled out why Dillon had more reason to cheat than David.
    • And, of course, there's the rather blatant irony of some of the richest and most privileged teenagers in the country calling out the working-class David as a "greedy Jew".
  • Insult Backfire: The ending.
    Charlie: You know something? I'm still gonna get into Harvard. And in 10 years no one will remember any of this. But you'll still be a goddamn Jew.
    David: And you'll still be a prick.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: St. Matthew's is a feeder school for the Ivy League, and a few characters are mentioned to be multi-generational legacies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
  • Jerkass Realization: Chris Reece, David's roommate, who tries to justify his anti-Semitism when he first learns David is Jewish, but then realizes how wrong he's been when David explains why he didn't tell him.
  • Karma Houdini: McGoo and all the other boys who bullied David get off scot-free.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Dillon feels this way about himself, doubting that he would have any friends if he wasn't a member of a prestigious family.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Sally dumps David when she learns he's Jewish. She claims it's because he lied to her, but it's clear to the audience she's anti-Semitic too, or at least too cowardly to confront those attitudes among her disapproving friends.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Despite being a very difficult teacher who almost seemed to delight in riding McGivern, Cleary is clearly horrified at the consequences of his actions.
  • Nice Jewish Boy: David Greene is the gentlest, most understanding boy you'll ever meet until you make fun of him for being Jewish.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: David gives Dillon a chance to come forward and do the right thing to spare everyone else. Dillon instead uses it as a chance to try and frame David for cheating.
  • One-Gender School: The Massachusetts prep school where most of the film takes place.
  • The One Who Made It Out: David is the only person (and Jew) in his working-class town to get a scholarship to a feeder school that'll guarantee Harvard. His father and coach often stress for him not to get into fights (or reveal he's Jewish) to mess it up.
    David's Dad: Sure, I've gotten into fights, but no one ever handed me Harvard!
  • Penny Among Diamonds: David is one of the few working-class students among his rich, privileged classmates, which is another divide between him and them.
  • Pet the Dog: After David is revealed to be Jewish, most of his erstwhile friends turn on him, but ultimately Reece and Connors (after coming to terms with the fact that he hid the truth) accept him as a good person and realize they were wrong. A few other people still treat him decently as well.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The whole idea of the film here is "the bad guys are anti-Semitic", often to the point of violence.
    • Played with regarding Dillon. Before anyone learns David is Jewish, Dillon says he wouldn't care if he went to a school filled with "Jews and Commies," which is a step-up from most other students. It's also made clear he already hated David for his football fame and for wooing his girlfriend, and just outed him to spite him.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Headmaster Dr. Bartram appears to be so. He calls out both David and Van Kelt for not reporting Dillion’s cheating sooner but absolves them. In comparison to the students, he appears to be a nice guy.
  • The Resenter: Dillon starts out friendly enough to David Greene, but he grows more and more jealous of Green as he outdoes him in sports and romance, until the fact that Greene is Jewish is dropped into his lap and he has a way to strike back.
  • Sadistic Choice: Van Kelt is faced with either telling the truth about Dillon's cheating (betraying a friend he'd had for four years) or allowing David to be wrongfully expelled instead. He eventually makes the right choice.
  • Sadist Teacher: Most of the teachers are pretty strict but the substitute French teacher, Mr. Cleary, takes the cake.
  • The Scapegoat: The Absurdly Powerful Student Council turns David in partly due to Anti-Semitism, partly just to cover for their friend Dillon. They consider David an outsider since he's a working-class scholarship recipient who just arrived this year, while they're all of the same socioeconomic class and have been friends for years. Before the blame was put on David, they also started blaming Jack Connors as the one who cheated.
  • Self-Deprecation: Dillon is very down on himself, even when people around him try to lift his spirits. It's one reason he becomes The Resenter toward David.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Collins's nickname is most likely from Mr. Magoo, the joke being that he wears glasses and Mr. Magoo is blind without them (and refuses to wear them).
    • Collins's lackey Smith imitates The Shadow, dressing up in a fedora and improvised cloak (blanket) and saying his catchphrase.
  • Totally Radical: Van Kelt, Reece, Dillon, and Connor meet David in his room and he tells them about the fight he was in. They talk about "rumbles" and "turf" and it's clear that David knows they have no clue what they are talking about and finds it rather ridiculous.
  • We Used to Be Friends: David Greene and Charlie Dillon start out as friends, but by the end of the movie their friendship has all but deteriorated caused by the latter being Driven by Envy and his anti-semitism.
  • With Friends Like These...: