David Greene, a young Jewish man out of Scranton, PA, has been given a great opportunity to attend St. Matthew’s Prep School. Having grown up on the rough, poverty-stricken streets of Scranton has made him tough, which was recognized through his exceptional abilities as a quarterback and led to his acceptance to the school. When he arrives, Coach McDevitt hints to David that he should not over-share about his background, implying that he should hide his Jewish identity while he attends St. Matthew’s. David quickly makes friends with his fearless personality with authority and outstanding athletic abilities. His friend turned rival, Charlie Dillon, slowly becomes more frustrated with getting overshadowed in nearly every way by David. After discovering David’s religious background and revealing it to their friends, David is shunned by nearly everyone and is harassed at every moment. When Mr. Gierasch identifies that someone has cheated on a major exam, it comes down to the student honor code to determine whether David, Charlie or someone else is responsible for potentially causing the entire class to fail, with ramifications that could lead to denial of their higher education dreams.
Starring: Brendan Fraser (David Greene), Matt Damon (Charlie Dillon), Chris O’Donnell (Chris Reece), Randall Batinkoff (Rip Van Kelt), Ben Affleck (Chesty Smith), Cole Hauser (Jack Connors), Andrew Lowery (Mack McGivern), Anthony Rapp (Richard Collins), Amy Locane (Sally Wheeler), Zeljko Ivanek (Mr. Cleary), Michael Higgins (Mr. Gierasch), Kevin Tighe (Coach McDevitt), Peter Donat (Headmaster Dr. Bartram)
In arguably the best role of his career, Brendan Fraser leads the cast as the brash yet suave David Greene, who has his eyes set on opportunity. Fraser has a great intensity of character, whether involved in his numerous fist fights or during accusations of his Jewish background being offensive to his classmates. Matt Damon is equally compelling as the privileged son of a long line of successful men to attend St. Matthew’s. Damon’s character is one that feels the pressure of success and fears failing to live up to the family name, even at the expense of stepping over others to get there. As Fraser’s roommate, Chris O’Donnell serves as a conflicted youth trying to sort out his beliefs regarding those different from himself. He appears to be the most rational one, considering his upbringing under the same atmosphere of bigotry and hatred for difference. Randall Batinkoff serves as Rip Van Kelt, the unofficial leader of the group and similarly conflicted youth based on conflicts of character and observation.
While many films representing differences in identity follow more blatant representations of bigotry, Robert Mandel took this story and wove in a strong combination of intrapersonal, interpersonal and institutional religious intolerance. It is quite interesting for a school so selective in its religious representation to take a Jewish boy onto their campus during a time when a strong anti-Semetic atmosphere still existed. While the move was more for their own benefit, it also highlighted an institutional element of oppression, in that the coach told David upfront that his religious identity should be kept a secret. On the first day David arrived onto campus, he knew that Jews were not welcome, listening to his new friends talk about “Jew-ing down” someone to purchase a record. While alone in the room, he took off his Star of David necklace and hid it in his dresser drawer, feeling as though his identity was something of which to be ashamed. While in the showers one day, the conversation returned to wanting to exile Jews from their Ivy League dreams, where David attempted to challenge Charlie and the guys on their beliefs that they could sense a Jew immediately if they came in contact, also trying to continue to conceal his identity. All of this concealment led to David’s continued disassociation of himself as Jewish, while stirring up an anger in his soul that was eventually going to be released.
The film moved on to what happens when a secret like David’s is released, immediately changes people’s perceptions of one’s character. While David hid his religious identity from his peers, they believed that he lied to them and that he was therefore untrustworthy and deserving of being shunned. What Charlie, Richard and the others ignored was that his Jewish identity was something that was oppressed from the day he arrived on campus, making it impossible for him to be treated as an equal unless it stayed hidden. This is a similar issue to many individuals during the post-World War II era, who were treated as second-class citizens for their hidden identities. These are similar issues today, mostly around identities of sexual orientation and gender. When the issue of cheating arose and the main two suspects ended up being David and Charlie, the majority of the group became hung up on David’s Judaism and failure to disclose his identity as evidence of his involvement in the scandal, with no actual proof at their disposal. This unfair treatment continues to exist today, as individuals are proven guilty before evidence dictates just based on their appearance or identity.
School Ties incorporates elements of high school hijinks into a much more compelling story of oppression and identity politics. Fraser is excitingly dramatic and worth seeing in this film.
Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5