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Holiday Sneaks

Lessons from the dormitory

The cloistered realm of the boarding school is fertile film territory for exploring social ills and intense relationships.

November 03, 2002|Marshall Fine | Special to The Times

There's nothing like a boarding school to bring out the fevered obsessions of a group of people and turn their domain into a microcosm of the big, bad world -- at least in the movies.

In boarding-school movies, the most pressing problems of the world at that moment are distilled (or reduced) to the simplest human terms in a tightly controlled setting. Maybe it's that petri-dish quality that brings out the behavior: the enclosed, closely monitored environment, usually fraught with repressive rules and conformist behavior. Who wouldn't want to act out?

Not all boarding-school movies (not to be confused with the military-school subgenre) take a whack at social issues. Sometimes, they are character studies of the kind of outsize personality necessary to be a compelling teacher. Or they use the rigors of this disciplined academic setting as a backdrop for a coming-of-age story about a student who discovers some previously unknown truth about himself.

Just as often, these movies are the backdrop for the story of that fortuitous symbiosis between teacher and student: "The Emperor's Club," for example, looks at the relationship between a teacher and one student who makes a distinctive impression on him.

Still, for all the things that make these movies unique, there are a few conventions that pull them together in a world of their own.

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(Text of table not included--Table compares these films: "Goodbye Mr. Chips" (1939);"Tea and Sympathy" (1956); "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969); "Dead Poets Society" (1989); "School Ties" (1992); "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001); "The Emperor's Club"(2002))

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