For today’s first review of Stand By Me (1986) for the Meathead March Blogathon, here’s a review by Justine of Justine’s Movie Blog.
Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me is probably one of the most successful classic examples of a coming-of-age film that has touched many people’s hearts. There’s plenty of things in this film that just work, there’s no other way to put it really. The cast, the music, the story, and the overall themes of childhood friendship and loss of innocence are elements that work towards this creation of the first successful adaptation from a Stephen King short story, “The Body.”
The story begins with an older Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss), who, upon looking at an article in the newspaper about one of his friends, reminisces of the days when he was a young boy. Flashback to Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), four 12-year-old boys living in Castle Rock, Oregon in the ’50s. Vern overhears his older brother talking about finding the dead body of a boy alongside the train tracks who went missing days before. With a dream of becoming town heroes, the boys set out on a two day journey on foot to find him. On the way, they learn things about themselves, about each other, and about the importance of standing up for yourself and doing what’s right.
All of the boys deal with their own tragedies in their lives. Gordie’s older brother, Denny (John Cusack), was a star football player who was killed in a car accident months before. He was the golden child, and Gordie never gets the attention or love from his father that Denny got, but Denny was also Gordie’s role model, and with him gone there’s a huge void in his life. Chris deals with an alcoholic father, as well as being known as the kid from a troublesome family, and despite his intelligence, he suffers discrimination against him from teachers and other parents. Teddy has a father in a psych ward somewhere, and has suffered abuse from him before when his father held his head down on a stove and almost burned his ear off. But, despite this, he has ideals about him in his head of being a war hero, and holds him in high regard. Vern deals with being that kid who is afraid of everything, and judging by his own friends making fat jokes at him, you can probably guess he deals with being teased about his weight pretty often.
These are all sad realizations that these kids are living pretty harsh realities of life already at such a young age. It makes it easy to sympathize with them. But when they’re together on this journey they are free to be kids. They can joke about inappropriate things, have deep conversations over a campfire about whether the cartoon “Goofy” is actually a dog or not, and tell each other elaborate stories involving a pie eating contest and blueberry vomit. They have moments that remind you they are innocent youth, and they find solace in each other’s company, even if sometimes they don’t always get along.
There’s also these moments, though, where they snap back to reality and are reminded of what awaits for them back home. Judgement, discrimination, and a world that isn’t always kind to 12-year-old boys who don’t fit the mold. There’s a scene where River Phoenix’s character breaks down in front of Gordie while talking about how he tried to return milk money he stole, but the teacher took it for herself and still laid the blame on him. No one would question it because he’s a Chambers kid, the association with his family is enough for him to get blamed for anything regardless of whether or not he was guilty. He has it in his head that he’ll never get anywhere due to the reputation he has in his small town, and that he’s not destined for success like Gordie, who has already developed a talent for storytelling and writing. There’s a hopelessness in Phoenix’s eyes that is heartbreaking and real, and it’s hard not to feel actual sadness for these characters who struggle to deal with the world around them.
There’s plenty of heartfelt moments like this, but they never have to deal with them alone. Their bond only gets stronger the day they have to face their own mortality. Finding the body proves to be an experience they weren’t quite ready for, despite it becoming a morbidly looming thought the closer they got to it. For Gordie, it reminded him of his own dead brother. When Ace (Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang of bullies show up to take the body, something inside Gordie snaps, and he realizes that this boy isn’t a trophy, he’s just a boy whose life was taken too early. For Gordie, this is a moment of maturity, somewhere along their journey, he changed, and he found the will power within himself to stand up for what’s right.
Childhood friendship and nostalgia of days long past are what I think attract so many people to this movie. The adventure is unusual, but the relationships are familiar. Seeing that these kids have each other for comfort, and watching Gordie and Chris pick each other up whenever the other is feeling down makes people nostalgic for the good friends they might’ve had, or maybe even never had. The ending sentence older Gordie types on his computer reads, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Somehow, I doubt it.
Stand by Me is a great coming-of-age film, the first successful adaptation from a Stephen King work, and one of Rob Reiner’s most defining examples of his directorial prowess. It’s one of those movies everyone needs to see in their lifetime.