"Dead Poets Society" was a surprise hit upon its release in 1989. This character drama set in a 1950s boys' boarding school in Vermont was directed by versatile Australian director Peter Weir ("The Truman Show," "Master and Commander") and written by Tom Shulman ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"). Much of the acclaim went to star Robin Williams, but the movie also provided an early glimpse at the talents of Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke.
Neil (Robert Shawn Leonard), Todd (Ethan Hawke) and their classmates are privileged students at the elite Welton Academy prep school. They are sons of blue-blooded New England families and expected to go into respectable careers like medicine and the law. Todd, however, nurses creative ambitions. He lacks the courage to pursue these dreams until the arrival of the new English teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams).
Keating arrives and immediately subverts the expectations of a prep school English class. He addresses the boys with affectionate, spontaneous familiarity. He is more interested in their psychological and moral development than their knowledge of literature. His class engages in strange activities, such as ripping pages out of books, standing on their desks and showing open disdain for creaky classic poems.
Neil, Todd and their friends begin to revere their new mentor and investigate his history as a student at their school. They find he was a member of a now extinct club: The Dead Poets Society. They meet in a cave near the school and recreate the poetry club, even though not all the members are interested in the poetry itself. Todd, particularly, is uncomfortable with poetry whereas Neil has a great passion for it.
When Keating gives his class an explicit assignment to write a poem, Todd finds himself unable to do so. The next day in class Keating asks him instead to make up a poem on the spot. Todd surprises his classmates and himself with the results. Meanwhile, Neil has decided he wants to be an actor, knowing the embarrassment and disapproval it will cause his parents. He auditions for the school production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Meanwhile, the Society meetings have become less about poetry and more about carousing with girls, drinking and smoking.
Neil is overjoyed to discover he was won a lead role in the play, but his father demands that his son withdraw from the role. Keating tells Neil to approach his father again, expressing how deeply important participating in the production is to him. Instead, Neil decides to lie and keep his continued acting from his father. He performs wonderfully in the opening night of the play to great acclaim. However, his father discovers the lie and decides to send Neil to a military prep school. Distraught, Neil kills himself.
Neil's father blames Keating for his son's death and demands the teacher's dismissal. He bands together with other irate parents unhappy with Keating's unorthodox teaching style, and they force several of the boys into signing a document that attests Keating abused his position and corrupted his students. Defeated, Keating returns one last time to his classroom to retrieve some personal articles, when the boys salute him with a final display of admiration by standing on their desks.
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