Why I Love… #14: Stand By Me

Year: 1986

Director: Rob Reiner

Stars: Wil Wheaton (Gordie), River Phoenix (Chris), Corey Feldman (Teddy), Jerry O’Connell (Vern), Kiefer Sutherland (Ace), Richard Dreyfuss (The Writer)

Genre: Drama

Well, this is an obvious choice, right? Right? I mean, Jesus, how am I ever going to get my full hipster film-snob creds if I keep writing up popular flicks like this? As if Apocalypse Now wasn’t obvious enough, now Stand By Me? Stand By Me?

Yes, Stand By Me. For certain people of a certain age, this movie is untouchable. An acting masterclass from its young leads presented by Rob Reiner in a movie so thoroughly without pretention as to sell it perfectly. A film about nostalgia that evokes nostalgia. Seriously, does anyone not like Stand By Me? This is a sincere film. And certainly one of the very best Stephen King adaptations.

Reiner’s unfussy style is perfect for King, an author so successful for writing in a ‘plain-speaking’ tongue. King’s books read like someone literally telling you a story; it makes them easy and addictive. Likewise, Reiner does not wrap his film up in moody, stylised trickery. Stand By Me doesn’t ask its viewers to ‘appreciate’ how it’s been made, in fact, as far as I can tell, Reiner would prefer his viewer forgot about him completely. This is about storytelling and great performances.

And what a cast. River Phoenix’s untimely death may have tainted this tale of loss of innocence with an extra level of pathos, but even if you were oblivious to his fate following the film, Stand By Me is an effecting movie that never oversteps into melodrama. And Phoenix in particular is a young powerhouse. In an alternate reality, one hopes, there is now a legacy of great work. For us though, this is his finest hour (and twenty).

Jerry O’Connell (of Sliders and, err, Scream 2 fame) is virtually unrecognisable, wrapped in baby fat. His Vern is wonderfully childlike – the least grown of the gang. Unafraid to be afraid. Wil Wheaton shows a strikingly mature range that was then wasted in the career-mausoleum of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Corey Feldman was never cast so spot-on. His performance as Teddy feels more like an extension of self than a great leap, volatile and endearing. Each of them brings something great to the table, but it’s the chemistry between the four of them that seals the deal and makes the film gel.

Witness the scene in which Chris stops Teddy from his ‘train dodge’ – even more-so than in Dazed And Confused (Why I Love… #9), here are a group of kids portrayed with the kind of seriousness and complexity usually reserved for adults. That this scene is followed directly by a game of ‘mailbox baseball’ being played by Sutherland’s gang of delinquents is proof positive that Richard Linklater was paying attention.

But Stand By Me does not feel like a movie to spoil by intellectualising it. Instead the most fun can be taken, appropriately, from reminiscing on it’s wealth of great moments.  Sure, it’s ‘trailer’ set piece is the train chasing the kids across the bridge – Reiner does action! – but there’s also the kids dancing along to The Cordette’s “Lollipop”, Gordie’s misguided fear of junkyard dog Chopper (“sick balls!”), Vern and Teddy’s debates over Superman vs. Mighty Mouse, ‘Lard-Ass’ and his barf-o-rama….

There is wonderful warmth, but it is balanced by moments of heartbreaking sincerity. Chris’ frustration with Gordie for losing his faith in his storytelling is played to a tee. Teddy’s sad rage if anyone besmirches his abusive father. The quiet beauty of Gordie spotting the deer. And does any male audience member not shrink horrified into their seat when that moment with the leech happens? So well judged and ingrained are these moments that it almost feels as though these are our childhood memories.

Reiner was on a roll, of course. Before this he had created comedy gold with This Is: Spinal Tap, and soon after he would do so again with the even funnier The Princess Bride. Sadly, following mass success with When Harry Met Sally, Reiner’s directorial career went somewhat off the rails. He has yet to replicate that kind of simply-honed magic he seemed blessed with in the ‘80s.

At the end, the grown-up Gordie – our narrator Richard Dreyfuss – muses “I never had any friends later on in my life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” It’s a beautiful sentiment. I can’t quite agree with it (I’m more thankful for the friends I have now than probably any I’ve moved through life with before), but I understand the meaning, the purpose. You can’t get back childhood. Can’t get back innocence. He also notes, “friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.” If Stand By Me teaches us anything, its to cherish these relationships and make of them as much as possible.

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