School Ties (1992) ***
Directed by Robert Mandel. Written by Dick Wolf, Darryl Ponicsan. Produced by Stanley R.Jaffe. Cinematography, Freddie Francis. Editing, Jerry Greenberg, Jacqueline Cambas. Production design, Janine Claudia Oppewall. Music, Maurice Jarre. Cast: Brendan Fraser, Chris O'Donnell, Andrew Lowery, Matt Damon et al. A Paramount release. 107 minutes. Rated PG-13 (language).
You know it is 1955 or a bit later because of the cars and a theater marquee in a grungy part of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with "Rebel Without A Cause" on it. But David Greene (Brendan Fraser), a big, nice and nice-looking Jewish boy from a nice working-class family, is no rebel. Even so, when a biker provokes him with a slur, he beats the daylights out of him. Nothing special here. Or so it seems. But the sub-text is. It's a counter-cliche: the Jew not as a victim of brute, physical force but as retaliator and winner. A good start.
David is an ace high school quarterback whom the nice coach of a posh New England prep school has recruited on a scholarship to bolster the chances of the St. Matthew's team. In turn this bolsters David's chances to attain the unattainable, a scholarship to Harvard, since, for the regular WASP preppies -- scions of the power elite and often scions of scions of scions -- the 200-year old school is the gateway to Harvard, Princeton or Yale.
Some students may be socially and psychologically immature and shielded from the common people, but in academic matters, St. Matthew's is a place of seriousness and quality.
The young men do share in their milieu's snobbishness and vast array of prejudices. Overall, however, likable, mature proletarian David is accepted as a person and soon is doubly appreciated as a winning player.
Even so, false pretenses are at work here. David, advised by his father to "fit in" and by the friendly coach not to give out more information than necessary, hides his Mogen David pendant and does not volunteer the fact he is a Jew. Eventually though, this will out and, for reasons of prejudice, jealousy and sexual rivalry (David wins over his pal's non-girlfriend) anti-Semitism explodes in sundry, sneaky and dishonorable ways. The outcome is more of a holding action than an epiphany. David's concealment-by-omission of his Jewishness is more sad than reprehensible, with the kind of distress that you find in films like "Pinky" or "Imitation of Life" where black girls try to pass for white. Depressing too are the status-seeking pressures on the WASP students who, willy-nilly are obsessed with "living up to someone else's expectations."Yet they are not Strasbourg geese, force-fed for slaughter and "foie gras." Sooner or later, pass or fail, they will take their place among the privileged, the old boys' elite, and send their own boys to St. Matthew's. Shed no tears for them. A frank update to 21st century would make an interesting, more relevant and more complex movie.