Stand By Me (1986)

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in The Best of the Best | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Violence, smoking, sex, and swearing (all elements of a pre-teenage boy’s day-to-day activities or conversations).

I grew up with the characters in Stand By Me. I don’t mean in the sense that its theatrical release coincided with my pre-teen years, thus repeatedly prompting me to watch it on video or TV, though that does happen to be true. It may be presumptuous, but I think all adolescent boys that grew up in small towns, no matter what generation, grew up with friends like Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern. As a road movie – on a child’s scale since they only travel 20 or 30 miles – Stand By Me has enough laughs, sadness, excitement, and dynamic character development/interaction to compete with the best of them. But it’s more than that. The movie feels human, almost a living thing (which is what theater buffs use to allege superiority over cinema). It’s not because it feels right there in front of me (and, no, 3D would not help). It’s because the characters are people we can identify with. They act like living, breathing, swearing, filthy, rotten, curious kids. Not adult-written caricatures of how they think kids act.

The first images we see are of a Stand3man sitting solemnly in his car, which is parked at the side of a road surrounded by wheat fields. A newspaper is sprawled out in his passenger seat, opened to a story about a fatal stabbing in a restaurant. Then the voice-over narration, and feature-length flashback, begins. “I was 12, going on 13, the first time I saw a dead human being.” The story takes us to a small Oregonian town in the summer of 1959. The younger version of the narrator visits a treehouse, where he and his three friends go when they want to act like rebellious youths – gambling, telling dirty jokes, swearing, talking about the opposite sex, and smoking. In recent weeks the townsfolk, especially these boys, have closely followed a missing child case. While eavesdropping on his misguided older brother, one of the boys hears that the missing kid’s body is near the railroad tracks outside of town. Drunk on the thought of media attention, the boys set out on a weekend trek to find the body, but must avoid trains, leeches, and a gang of delinquents led by Kiefer Sutherland along the way.

With the 1950s as a backdrop (and a soundtrack featuring Ben E. King’s title-inspiring ballad to match), the boys live in a world unto their own – and one not unlike what we devise for ourselves as children. A world where you can swear on your mother’s name, but a pinkie swear means far more. A world where a legendary junkyard dog and noises in the woods at night are the most fearsome things imaginable. A world where mothers are at a constant disadvantage during insult contests and pokes at fathers mean a fight’s a-brewin.’ A world where you could have a serious debate about Mighty Mouse and Superman. It’s the best time in their lives. Kind of the last blast before puberty hits and adulthood nears. Gordie’s savvy buddies have the foresight to know their dreams and aspirations won’t amount to much, and they’re just in training to be working class heroes (much like Breaking Away). In a short week they’ll be in junior high, which means they’ll all be split up. While Gordie’s in advanced classes, they’ll be in shop classes making ashtrays and birdhouses.

The film is based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, which appeared in Different Seasons alongside Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Director Rob Reiner collaborates wonderfully with King’s material, which hinges on the boys’ rites of passage to becoming self-realized men. Reiner infused some of his own boyhood experiences (the leeches) and comedic interactions, and hired his boyhood friend Richard Dreyfuss as the narrator. Reiner, as well as the film, earned nominations from the Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, with a well-deserved Oscar-nomination going to Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans for their adapted script.

The only people that failed to see recognition Stand2from the successful film were perhaps the biggest reason for its success. Reiner perfectly matched the characters to the real lives of each sprouting child actor, from a hippie leader and sensitive smarty to a fat runt and tumultuous goof. As the fat and timid Vern, Jerry O’Connell made his movie debut at 11 years old, the youngest of the group. Corey Feldman plays Teddy Duchamp, a four-eyed goofball who idolizes his imbalanced father despite his violent tendencies. We mostly follow Gordie Lachance, played by Wil Wheaton, an invisible child overshadowed by his athletic older brother (John Cusack). Gordie doesn’t know why, but he wants to find the dead kid more than anyone. After a handful of painful flashbacks, Gordie’s emotional turmoil escalates into a cathartic breakdown that peaks with the line, “Suck my fat one you cheap dime store hood.”

Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) is the group’s leader and, since he comes from a bad family and alcoholic father, is presumed to be a bad seed as well. In my favorite scene in the film, we get the impression that Chris is starting to believe it himself. “I’m just one of those low-life Chambers kids. … No one even asked me if I took the milk money that time. Everyone knew I took it, but maybe I felt bad and gave it back.” The scene presents the type of pain intrinsic to his character, but doesn’t reveal itself because Chris is the strong leader, and a parental figure or role model for the others. It reminds me of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, both in character similarity and level of performance. As Phoenix painfully delivers his tear-filled speech, I don’t see a talented kid that can act, I see the rare kind of performer who reacts, exposing what we think is an insight into his soul, but we’ll never know for sure.

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