'School Ties,' exploring ethnic identity, just gets better and better

September 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"School Ties" is the kind of earnest, issue-oriented filmmaking that somehow doesn't seem to be in fashion any more, and it faces a real danger, lacking pyrotechnics or edge, of getting buried in the box-office deluge of a Friday with five other films opening, especially one called "Husbands and Wives."

A shame. The movie is made with craft and sensitivity. It explores that troubling issue of ethnic identity and how to maintain it in the presence of mainstream pressures to conform, which seems to be today's real killer in a number of different

communities.

The setting is a posh New England prep school in the middle-1950s. Ike was dozing in the White House, the Reds hadn't sputnicked yet, and all was peace and plenty. But, like some slumbering lizard, the beast of prejudice snoozed under the placid surface of the land. And little does David Greene realize he's the boy about to awaken it.

David is one of those dream dudes, with Johnny U.'s arm and Artie D.'s guts; give him a football and watch him throw 60-yard frozen ropes and, more importantly, watch him summon the will to infuse his team on to victory. Thus David, who plays on a raggedy field just this side of a slag heap in Scranton, Pa., heads up to spend his final year amid the russet hues of New England. David, a jock born and bred, will just be one of the guys. Maybe the best of them.

And, sports being the ticket to success in high school then as now, David's skills with the ball get him quickly in with the best set of Waspy profiles and haircuts. These are the student jocks of the '50s who will be the law clerks of the '60s, the junior congressmen of the '70s and the senators of the '90s; if business is their goal, corporate boards will be their destinies.

There's only one trouble. They don't like Jews. Oh, and there's one other trouble. David is a Jew.

The great strength of "School Ties" is that while it denounces the evil of anti-Semitism, it never quite gives in to the same impulse toward categorical anger. It doesn't portray all WASPs as evil, it doesn't end up denouncing the tradition of private education. In fact, it's a movie that just gets better and better as it goes along, turning finally on the issue of an honor code violation, where David must abide by a mandate that he knows will destroy him but which, in its larger application, may in fact be decent. It's a wondrous dilemma, beautifully evoked, and his decision is quite moving. Hard to believe that Brendan Fraser, who plays David with both power and sensitivity, was most recently the oafish, mewling "Encino Man." That's a true wonder. I think this guy can act a little.

'School Ties'

Starring Brendan Fraser.

Directed by Robert Mandel.

Released by Paramount.

Rated PG-13.

***

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