School Ties (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
David Greene (Brendan Fraser), a Jewish high school senior in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is invited to attend St. Matthew’s, a renowned school in New England, because the academy needs a talented quarterback who can win them games. Despite some of the faculty’s knowledge that David is from a Jewish family, an uncommon recruitment given the prejudices in the ’50s, they are desperate to have him. When David meets his fellow athletes, readily spewing words of bigotry in the locker room, he figures that his life in the prep school will be easier if he makes an attempt to hide his background.
“School Ties,” based on the screenplay by Dick Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan, looks at the ugliness of intolerance with fastidiousness. While it is very unpleasant to hear phrases like “Christ killer,” “dirty Jew,” “Hebe,” and the like, it is also challenging, sometimes more so, to try to relate and sympathize with a person whose lips utter these words, especially when he stands like a proud giant after making the room laugh for being “daring” enough to use such unnecessary slurs. The film allows us to observe the close-minded individuals, think about some of the reasons why they might be the way they are, and be open to the possibility that they can learn to be more open-minded over time.
One them is Charlie (Matt Damon). He is under a lot of pressure from his family to get into Harvard. He sees himself as mediocre and having David enter the picture being surrounded by all sorts of adoration makes him jealous and angry. The screenplay makes a good move in allowing Charlie and David to connect before they are torn by circumstances, one of the reasons involving a girl (Amy Locane), and become enemies. Charlie’s confession to David at the jetty is moving because Charlie is able to lay out his insecurities to someone who feels more like a stranger than a friend. He is not yet aware that David is Jewish.
I felt Reece (Chris O’Donnell) needs more screen time given that he is David’s roommate and one of the students who is prejudiced. There is something surprising about him and it is a shame that the screenplay chooses not to take full advantage of it.
Despite the power of the film’s message, it meanders from time to time. The scenes with the tough French teacher (Zeljko Ivanek), for instance, has a wonderful build-up but weak resolution. Much of these scenes are played for laughs but there is nothing amusing about the ominous halls where one person with the wrong intentions might discover David’s secret.
Directed by Robert Mandel, “School Ties” is appropriately titled because of its multiple meanings. Ties are designed to make people look formal or appear to have a high status. It is a tool that allows David to keep a front in order to belong. The other type of ties involves the camaraderie among the students. There is a bond among the seniors that David can never be a part of, no matter how hard he tries, and it has nothing to do with being Jewish. Their bond is made strong by the accumulation of experiences that the students shared in the institution. Lastly, it is about family connections–knowing the right people to get ahead in life, a concept that the boys rely on as a fallback every time they feel insecure or if things do not work out. David has very little connections. He has a lot to lose.