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YMMV / Dead Poets Society

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  • Alternate Aesop Interpretation:
    • One could argue that the message of the film is actually about finding a balance between thinking for yourself and knowing when to follow the rules. Charlie's pranks result in him getting paddled and later expelled even after he's warned about misbehaving just for the sake of it.
    • Does the film validate Knox's attempts to pursue Chris? The other characters roll their eyes at his actions, and Chris tells him she finds his excessive courting of her infuriating (whether she likes him back is irrelevant; she's telling him to stop embarrassing her) and it only ends on a Maybe Ever After. Chris doesn't show interest in Knox until after he stops doing such extreme things and simply invites her to the play with him. She liked him before he started going to extremes, suggesting that the Aesop here is that he should have just asked her out in the first place to get to know her better.
  • Alternative Character Interpretation:
    • Did Nolan fire Keating after Neil's suicide because he honestly believed he was responsible for it? Was it an act of damage control to save the school's reputation? Or did he just use the incident as an excuse to get rid of him and his unorthodox teaching methods? Maybe some combination thereof?
    • Was Keating an irresponsible teacher for going against the school's values and rules despite the consequences, or was he doing the students a favor by trying to open their minds and broaden their perspectives? Notably he reprimands the students for doing anything that breaks the rules (he has no idea about the society; the kids do that on their own). In fact when he tells Charlie not to pull any more pranks, Charlie actually listens to him.
    • We are clearly supposed to hate Neil's Dad. Yes he is very demanding and controlling. But bear in mind that when he was Neil's age it would've been right at the start of the Great Depression. Neil states at one point that his family is not as wealthy as most of the other kids and his dad points out that he never had the opportunities that Neil does. So in other words he probably had to work very hard to provide a decent life for his family and would like to see future generations of the family live a good life as well. His father also probably fought in the war. So it is somewhat understandable that he doesn't want everything he's worked for ruined by Neil's dream to be an actor. Of course he could be a textbook emotional abuser, using "everything he's worked for" as an excuse to micromanage his son's life despite his obvious unhappiness. He seems to be more worried about how everything will affect him.
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  • Award Snub: Ethan Hawke's layered performance as an anxious teenager who has to deal with the suicide of his best friend and Robert Sean Leonard as an abuse victim who is driven to suicide? Neither were nominated at the Oscars in the Supporting Actor category.
  • Base-Breaking Character: Keating is a polarizing character. Some viewers feel Keating was an irresponsible teacher, encouraging the students to break the school rules when in so doing it could get them in troublenote  but would be unlikely to rebound on him and he tried to censor ideas that he didn't agree with, ripping out the book introduction. Others feel that the value of broadening the students' perspective and encouraging them to enter adult life with a different attitude than that endorsed by the school was in the long run worth the short-term risk of being disciplined by the school.
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  • Cliché Storm: Not the film itself but the entire character of Chris. The only major female in the story, a popular blonde cheerleader defined by her relationship to a nerdy guy in comparison to a Big Man on Campus as the Romantic False Lead. It can actually be shocking for newer viewers how many passé tropes are played straight with her.
  • Designated Villain: Principal Nolan has some of this, the movie setting him up as the uber-conformist, stuffy-conservative "Stop Having Fun" Guy opposite Mr. Keating's free-spirited Cool Teacher. While he is a jerk from time to time, most of the time he's just doing his job as principal of the school; the rest of the time, he's espousing beliefs or values that clash with the message of "Carpe Diem", which is hardly his fault. On the other hand, he clearly believes that the authoritarian structure of the school should be maintained, considers the ridiculous essay about drawing graphs to analyze poetry that Keating condemned as "excrement" to be "excellent" and disciplines Charlie for his silly prank by paddling him, although that was much more acceptable in the 1950s than it is now. Remember also that it is a boarding school and Mr. Nolan is not only responsible for them during class time, but during all other times as well. Anyone who has ever gone to a boarding school, even the most progressive ones, knows that they are very strict and everything you do is scrutinized.
  • Genius Bonus: Neil playing Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream is actually rather fitting for his role in the story. Puck is known for walking in several different worlds, influencing many different figures and yet being master of none of them. Neil likewise is The Ace who is master of his classes, his friendships, extracurricular activities and eventually acting too, but ultimately becomes master of none of them either. Like Puck, he's also under the control of an authority figure, and follows the wrong instructions to shake up the status quo.
  • Harsher in Hindsight:
    • Mr. Keating breaking down in tears after he discovers that Neil killed himself is a thousand times worse to watch since Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014. It also makes Mr. Keating's speeches about "carpe diem" and seizing the day before it's gone heartbreaking.
    • If the filmmakers had gone with What Could Have Been where Mr. Keating died of leukemia combined with dejection at the loss of Neil Perry, it might have been even more tear-jerking and tragic in retrospect with Robin Williams' suicide in 2014 and the students would have lost hope.
    • The film's final scene has Keating's students giving him a touching send-off, showing their appreciation for everything he's taught them. This is now almost impossible to watch without feeling like a send-off for Williams rather than his character. However, it can be considered Heartwarming in Hindsight, since they're showing how much he meant to them.
  • Hilarious in Hindsight:
  • Ho Yay: Neil and Todd. It's virtual canon, to the point that most of the fanfiction circles on them.
  • It Was His Sled: Neil's death, and Keating getting fired because of it.
  • Memetic Mutation: The "carpe diem" speech got a lot of play on Tumblr in the wake of Robin Williams' death. Not to mention "O, Captain! My Captain!"
  • Moral Event Horizon:
    • Neil's father driving his son to suicide, albeit inadvertently. And he arguably crosses it again when rather than owning his responsibility for the suicide, he persecutes Mr Keating for it - which gets Charlie expelled too.
    • Cameron was always The Friend Nobody Likes, but selling out the whole club just to save his own skin?
  • Narm:
    • The Big "NO!" is ruined by the slow motion and Neil's father being played by Kurtwood Smith from That '70s Show. You can almost hear him screaming "NEIL, YOU DUMBASS!!!"
    • John Keating's name being... well, John Keating. The sheer level of Meaningful Name is rather laughable.
  • Never Live It Down:
    • Knox kissing Chris on the forehead while she's asleep.
    • Mr Keating encouraging the students to rip out to poetry book's introduction is often held against him.
  • Older Than They Think: The subplot of a strict 1950s father forbidding his son from starring in a play and eventually driving him to suicide can be found in Tea and Sympathy - which is also set at a prestigious private school, and said boy gets encouragement from a faculty member who doesn't fit in. Of course in the former, the father is worried that his son might be gay and the suicide is averted.
  • Retroactive Recognition:
    • Those who watched House before seeing this movie might be surprised to see Wilson as a 17-year-old prep school student.
    • Knox's actor Josh Charles would later win Emmy nominations for The Good Wife.
  • Ron the Death Eater: People tend to go overboard with Mr Keating's 'inappropriate' teaching methods. It's often forgotten that he only encourages them to think for themselves and learn something while also enjoying his class. He doesn't encourage them to all become artists and stresses that becoming doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc. are all noble pursuits and absolutely necessary to sustain life. He doesn't encourage the Dead Poets' Society, and the kids do that on their own. When the kids start outright rule-breaking, he reprimands Charlie and reminds him that "carpe diem" is not an excuse to do stupid things. He also gives Neil legitimately good advice when he's angsting about the play - telling him to talk to his father and explain his problem. Neil lies to him and in fact ignores his advice.
  • The Scrappy: Neil’s father Thomas. Most likely intentional since he’s meant to be a character the audience hates.
  • Signature Scene: The ending where the students stand on their desks to salute Keating.
  • Unintentionally Unsympathetic: Knox's character arc revolves around trying to win the heart of a pretty girl he met once and it is framed in a way where the audience is clearly supposed to root for him. Yet his method of courtship towards Chris involves kissing her on the forehead while she's sleeping, showing up unannounced at her school after that incident to recite poetry to her in front of her friends and then hounding her until she agrees to go on a date with him. Knox is supposed to be in a classic "nerd vs Jerk Jock" love story but he comes across as an aggressive creep who won't take "no" for an answer.
  • Values Dissonance:
    • Knox kissing Chris on the head when she is sleeping at the party, as such an action is often a precursor to rape in such situations and fits the definition of sexual assault. There's some Deliberate Values Dissonance here as well - as the action would be seen as charmingly romantic for the time (it's seen in the film Now, Voyager too).
    • Charlie's new identity as "Nuwanda" is unlikely to get through in modern times too.
  • Values Resonance: Neil's suicide is all the more topical as awareness of mental health issues among men became a major talking point in The New '10s - spurred on ironically enough by the suicide of Robin Williams himself.
  • The Woobie:
    • Todd is The Unfavorite who has crippling anxiety and self esteem issues - to the point where he'd rather lie to say he didn't do an assignment than have to speak in front of the class. Then his best friend kills himself.
    • Neil may be The Ace but he's got a very abusive father who tries to make him feel like shit for wanting something different in life than what he has planned. After being bullied by him one too many times, he feels that suicide is preferable.


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