By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 25, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the mid-’50s, David Greene (Brendan Fraser), a Jewish kid from working-class Scranton, Pa., is accepted as a senior at St. Matthew’s Academy, an idyllic New England prep school that has been molding elite young men into Ivy League fodder for generations. Normally, the school administrators wouldn’t dream of enrolling someone Jewish. But the football team has been on a losing streak, and David is a star quarterback. Thrown in with a wolf pack of fine-boned young WASPs, he conceals his Jewish identity and becomes a kind of undercover minority student, discovering anti-Semitism in its most insidiously everyday forms. Then his identity is revealed for him.

School Ties, an earnest drama about prejudice and cultural pride, seems to have come out of a time warp, and not just because it’s an obvious gloss on Gentleman’s Agreement, the 1947 Oscar winner in which Gregory Peck played a magazine writer pretending to be Jewish. The movie stacks the deck for its hero in the same way that Sidney Poitier’s early films did: Its most potent argument against intolerance is that David is perfect — a dedicated, kindly achiever. I mean, did he really have to be a terrific football player and a great student and a wonderful, caring guy and a soulful dancer and a physical cross between Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy Jr.?

Still, tempting as it is to giggle at the retro-high-mindedness of School Ties, the movie is nicely acted, and it has been made with some honesty and intelligence. The characterization of prep-school life is far more convincing than it was in, say, Dead Poets Society. We get a richer feel for the pressures and privileges that have shaped these young men. Better yet, the movie puts a human face on racism. It understands that even the most prejudiced of the St. Matthew’s students aren’t necessarily hateful people. They’ve been handed their anti-Semitism along with their manners; many of them are compassionate enough to see through it. Playing Mr. Perfect, Brendan Fraser — yes, Encino Man — proves a smart and likable actor, alive to what’s going on around him. Sidney Poitier proved you could keep your integrity even in a role like this, and Fraser does too. B