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‘School Ties’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 18, 1992

Brendan Fraser has evolved considerably in the few months between his admirable new film, "School Ties," and his debut as a cave dude in "Encino Man" -- not that the movies really differ much thematically. Both turn on a teenager's driving need to win over his crowd, to fit in with the cool kids -- be he an unearthed Cro-Magnon, or as in this case, a Jewish quarterback who wins an athletic scholarship to a prestigious New England prep school in 1955. Ideally positioned to become a BMOC on an otherwise WASP campus, the studly ballplayer takes his coach's suggestion -- "You don't have to explain nothing to nobody" -- and hides the truth from his clannish new classmates.

Fraser's performance, one of quiet power and sweet resolve that is not in the least stereotypical, sustains this worthy but lopsided examination of antisemitism in a venue of wide lawns and narrow minds. Peachy-skinned and privileged, the characters and the solid young actors who play them might have tumbled right out of "Dead Poets Society" (the overwrought fellow who drinks disinfectant when he flunks French, for instance). Initially the adolescent scions welcome the polite but poor David Greene (Fraser) to their glossy green turf. His cherubic roommate (Chris O'Donnell) lends him a school tie, slaps him on the back and directs him to the chapel, where the Episcopalian equivalent of Shylock presides over opening ceremonies.

Headmaster Bartram (Peter Donat) praises the assembled as "the elite of the nation ... that cares more for hard work, more for service than capital gain." An aggressive antisemite, Bartram castigates David for secretly celebrating Rosh Hashanah in the chapel. "You people are very determined," says Bartram. "{But} the meek shall inherit the Earth." David fires back: "When they do, I wonder how meek they'll be."

The racist comments of David's peers carry more sting and play more realistically than the headmaster's hostility, and they seem to be inordinately inclined to work ethnic slurs into the conversation. (One kid brags about getting a deal on a record player: "I jewed him down to $20.") It's bad enough when they think he's one of their own kind, but when David is exposed by a loose-lipped alum, the former quarterback, Dillon (Matt Damon), uses the information to discredit David -- who has not only stolen Dillon's glory but the heart of his thoroughbred blond sweetheart (Amy Locane).

Angry that he pretended to be one of them, his classmates are soon painting swastikas above David's bunk. Matters come to a head when one of them accuses David of an ethical breach that could lead to his dismissal and destroy the future of this humble hunk from a lunch-pail town in Pennsylvania. Will David be kicked out of St. Matt's, thereby losing an opportunity to go to Harvard? Okay, so it's a little corny, but it is good for you.

"School Ties," written by Dick Wolf (TV's "Law & Order") and Darryl Ponicsan ("Taps"), is doubtless better than it deserves to be, thanks to Fraser, whose Costner-esque dash serves as an antidote to the dated material. Director Robert Mandel, best known for the flashy techno-thriller "F/X," brings a surprisingly sensitive touch to this earnest story of intolerance. Meant to serve as a "Gentleman's Agreement" for the '90s, it's actually got much more in common with "The Outsiders" or even "Pretty in Pink." The moral is the same whether you're a greaser, a tomboy, a gentile or a Jew. You've got to be you.

"School Ties" is rated PG-13 for profanity, racial epithets and thematic material.

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