Published on May 6th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
School Ties 
Summary: A prep school drama is remembered for its cast of future stars but 'School Ties' is a smart, pointed story about tolerance.
PG-13 | 106 min.
Director: Robert Mandel | Screenplay: Darryl Ponicsan & Dick Wolf
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, Chris O’Donnell
Distribution: Paramount Pictures | Box Office: $14,715,067 (#77 of 1992)
The Ivy-covered walls of New England boys’ prep schools have been the setting of some outstanding American fiction since the 1950s. Maybe it’s the elitist atmosphere, the promise of the students’ futures or the envy of birthright wealth that most Americans harbor but that backdrop seems to work. When I was growing up a midwestern teen in a working class town, I loved stories like John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and in film, Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. Part of it was the escapism of hanging with super rich kids and perhaps an equal part was the joy I experienced when the characters fell on their faces.
In 1992, director Robert Mandel assembled a cast of promising young actors who would go on to win Oscars, star in top-rated network shows and rake in millions at the box office. Mandel, an Ivy League educated filmmaker, made a handful of mostly forgettable flicks like 1986’s F/X and 1996’s The Substitute but also some solid work in television, directing episodes of The X-Files and Lost. For his fifth feature, School Ties, he had help from a bonafide television legend–Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, who co-penned the screenplay with author Daryl Ponicsan.
School Ties stars Brendan Fraser as David Greene, a new student on a football scholarship at the prestigious St. Matthew’s prep school in Massachusetts. David is a smart kid from a blue collar steel town in Pennsylvania and he’s also Jewish, which becomes the primary source of tension in the film’s plot. At school he rooms with a nice guy named Chris (Chris O’Donnell) and hangs around with his teammates including Charlie (Matt Damon), a hothead with entitlement issues. David finds out immediately that his new friends are anti-Semites, leading him to conceal his religious beliefs.
As I watched School Ties, I couldn’t help but feel its story was less about anti-Semitism than homophobia. Gay civil rights was a growing issue in the 1992 Presidential election and just a year prior to the Army’s adoption of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, it’s clear there was still a lot of paranoia and fear of homosexuals in America.
David isn’t ashamed of his heritage but knows his life will simply be easier if he keeps it a secret, as many gay people have done for centuries. When he first arrives on campus, he hears his pals cracking Jew jokes leading him to take off his Star of David necklace and stick it in a drawer–a visual metaphor for his concealed identity.
At the opening of School Ties, we see that in David’s dusty hometown he’s very popular, with only a handful of backward roughnecks calling him names and goading him into a fight. This leads to one of the cheesiest moments of the film, when a motorcycle-riding greaser reveals the source of his anti-Semitism, sputtering, “They killed Jesus…it still bothers the shit out of me!” Because that sounds exactly like something a teenage delinquent would say.
Meanwhile, in the sheltered halls of St. Matthew’s, the students are all homogenized. I mean, these kids use shoe horns for Christ’s sake… These boys have each come from the same background their fathers and likely their grandfathers came from–trust fund accounts and an admittance letter from Harvard waiting in the mailbox–in short, they haven’t seen many non-WASPs in their days. In one early passage, Charlie says, “What do I care if Jews go to Harvard? You don’t have to room with them.” If he only knew he were standing two feet from one in the shower, his tiny head may explode.
Damon is so unlikable as Charlie, who eventually becomes the primary antagonist in School Ties, which is a compliment to his performance. He was 22 when the film was made, full of the cocksure Boston attitude that would become his signature. Fraser, who’s always just been kind of there, carries the movie nicely, playing David as a character with dignity to spare. 20-year-old Ben Affleck pops up in a small role as well, adding this picture to the list of other star-makers like The Outsiders and American Graffiti.
The ultimate letdown of this movie is that it follows a clear path from the time we learn David is Jewish, not surprising the audience at all. Similar to Dead Poets Society, there is a student that snaps under the pressures of private school expectations, being pushed to the brink by an antagonistic teacher played by Oz alumnus Zeljko Ivanek. Other clichés include organized pranks being pulled by the students on unpopular faculty members and the placement of one sensitive, working class student (David) amongst a rank of privileged kids.
At the end of School Ties, we’re asked to learn a lesson akin to Elia Kazan’s 1947 Oscar winner Gentleman’s Agreement–simply, who’s the real villain? Charlie is an obviously hateful character, wearing his prejudice on his sleeve but some of the other boys share the shame by laughing at racist jokes and turning their backs on David when his secret is revealed. It’s easy to side against a clear monster like Damon’s character but in real life, there are far more people like the countless other students who try to just keep quiet and ignore the ugly problem.
Whether it’s about Jews, homosexuals or another minority entirely, the subtext behind School Ties is one about tolerance. There isn’t much new about this film but it’s always exciting to see a group of soon-to-be stars just working to get their names on the marquee. These kids would have better work ahead of them…except maybe O’Donnell, he’s mostly done crap.