Watching ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ for the first time

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been a ‘movie buff’. Granted there are lots of movies I have seen, and there’s even more that I haven’t. When I was seventeen, I had a casual job at Video Ezy (flashback, anyone?) and I would often cause confusion when I told people I hadn’t seen the movie they were holding in their hand, despite the fact it was in the Top 10 New Releases. What do you mean you haven’t seen The Dark Knight? Oh, I dunno, I’m not really a movie person, you know what I mean?

Fast forward to the time of Netflix and Stan and some movies are now easier to access. Given my history of taking roughly five years to engage in a popular box office hit, I have decided to slowly working my way through what Netflix and Stan deem as classics/must-sees/movies-to-see-in-your-lifetime. To start of this classic crusade, this week I watched Good Will Hunting  and Dead Poets Society … for the first time (gasp!). Anyone who is a fan of the late Robin Williams will know these movies, and the iconic characters that he portrayed in both.

I’m not going to try and deconstruct these movies or even attempt to use movie review jargon, I just want to say what I like about them and what lessons I think they leave. I’ll try to not just parrot what the internet says about these movies. In the spirit of Mr Keating, I’m going to think for myself.

Good Will Hunting

I liked Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were oh so young! youthfulness! twenty-somethings! I only realised they wrote the script as the opening credits were rolling. How talented are they?

For me, it wasn’t so much the message of using your talents that appealed to me, but rather how that message was delivered, and who it came from. While Professor Lambeau tries to sell the prestige of mathematics to Will, and set him up with job interviews, it doesn’t get through. What does get through to Will, and ultimately convince him to forge a new path for himself, is a casual conversation with his friend at work. Chuckie, played by Ben Affleck, says the best part of his day is the brief moment between stepping out of his car and knocking on Will’s door, when he hopes that Will isn’t home and has moved onto something greater. He tells Will to make the most of his talents, so that he doesn’t wake up when he’s fifty years old, still living in the same neighbourhood, doing the same job.

To have a friend like Chuckie, someone that gives it to you straight, is a rare thing. I am lucky enough to have one friend in particular who reminds me what I’m worthy of. She is not afraid to hold up a mirror to some of the situations in which I find myself, telling me that I need to get out, move on, speak up. Watching this scene reminded me of the relationship I have with this friend. 

Another thing I liked about Good Will Hunting was the spiel that Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams, delivers to Will while they are sitting by the lake. Just because Will is an orphan, doesn’t mean that Sean will understand his life by reading Oliver Twist. Books help us learn about the world around us, as do conversations with the people next to us. It’s important to read and it’s also important to listen and speak.

Granted there were a few things I had trouble with in this film, though they didn’t take away from liking it overall. I didn’t appreciate the whole I-know-what’s-best-for-Will attitude of Professor Lambeau, but I guess that was the point of his character. The way Will proved his intelligence by spouting out quotes and historical facts was unconvincing. I’m glad Sean Maguire pegged him down a notch in that scene by the lake. It would have been nice to learn more about how Will came to have that level of intellect instead of just having it assumed from the beginning.

I can see why this movie was a hit, and why Williams won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The script is original, the characters are regular people and it’s got all the elements of a wholesome movie. I love that Chuckie was the one who knew Will best and convinced him to go. Sometimes it’s not our parental and authorative figures that know what’s best for us, rather our friends sitting right beside us.

Dead Poets Society

Winding the clock back eight years, I then watched Robin Williams engage with young men that lived in a different world to that of Will Hunting. I thought Dead Poets Society had some heartwarming moments and an important message about the power of words and ideas. The whole thing reminded me of something I once heard, “Why do we study humanities? Because we’re human.” Having taken English and History in high school and majored in History at University, I certainly lean towards words and stories.

I liked the inspirational teacher aspect, particularly placed in an affluent boarding school where the boys have been moulded by their parents’ Ivy League aspirations. As privileged as those boys were, they hadn’t had the privilege of being able to freely express themselves and think beyond the textbook subjects. One of my favourite scenes is where Mr Keating has them outside and chooses three boys to march around in a circle. While each boy starts with his own pace, all three eventually march in unison and the onlookers clap in time. Mr Keating’s reason for the exercise is simple – it can be difficult to maintain your own beliefs in the face of others. He goes on to encourage the boys to think for themselves, swim against the tide, take the road less traveled. I do like this message in certain circumstances. Thinking for yourself in the face of science, for example, might not always go down so well.

I do wonder whether the movie would have had the same impact if Mr Keating taught students from disadvantaged backgrounds, or a group of girls. Would those little women destined to nurses, teachers and homemakers be inspired to pursue a creative life? Maybe in 1989, a movie about a teacher that encourages young girls to become doctors and lawyers would have been more apt for the whole ‘going against the grain’ message.

Another story that came to mind while watching this movie was Frank McCourt’s novel, ‘Tis. After migrating to New York City from Ireland, Frank teaches in technical schools where the students are apathetic, indifferent and question why they should bother learning anything at all. Mr Keating’s students, on the other hand, are attentive and ready to learn. They are almost too attentive to start with, though Mr Keating makes them realise they haven’t been paying attention to one of the greatest forms of artistic expression, poetry.

As a young educated female that has read some poems, I liked Dead Poets Society. In a time when masculine and feminine traits are being hung out for inspection, it was refreshing to watch young men engage in creative pursuits. Maybe this classic is exactly that for it’s timelessness and ever important message to carpe diem!


Feature Photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk on Unsplash

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