I have a feeling that Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming of age drama “Stand By Me” is one of those entities that has benefited extraordinarily well from nostalgia. If I was twelve years old in 1986 and I saw this film in the cinema, it probably would have blown my freaking mind and I would have rolled up my sleeves like River Phoenix and pretended to smoke cigarettes with pencils. Watching it for the first time as a twenty seven year old, it didn’t hit me as much as if I was a teenager and I wasn’t able to draw on happy memories of watching it when I was a kid and how it made me feel then. It’s the world seen from the eyes of a teenage boy in 1959, and while there are some themes which still translate to today, there are some that just don’t; teenage boys now will still think their fathers don’t understand them, their mates are their whole world, and the thought of the forthcoming school year and the daunting prospect of change can be scary. But… gone are the days of complete freedom and autonomy, of disappearing for days on end without parents calling in to check, being able to feed yourself and three mates for two days with just the change in your pockets and smoking cigarettes and flicking through Playboys in tree houses.
Based off Stephen King’s novel “The Body” and supposedly one of the only filmic adaptations of King’s works that he actually liked (he famously despised the direction taken for “The Shining”), “Stand By Me” tells the story of four young boys who set off one weekend to find a dead body so they can tell the papers and be seen as heroes, maybe even be on TV! The four lads, Gordie (Will Wheaton, the leader of the gang who feels resented by his father following the death of his older, more impressive brother), Chris (River Phoenix, the tough kid with the messed up family who doesn’t want to end up like his Dad and get out of their small town), Teddy (Corey Feldman, angry and bitter and quick to defend his mentally ill and abusive father with claims that he stormed the beaches of Normandy), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell, earnest and funny and not quite as cool as the other boys) all set off with their backpacks for their adventure, unaware that this weekend would be the most formative of their young lives. Along the way, local bully and sociopath John “Ace” Merrill (Keifer Sutherland) gets wind of the body and wants to report it to the papers himself, and the boys stand up to him and his gang in one of the more bizarre and intense stand offs in movie history.
The success of this film is found in how well Reiner was able to match his young cast to their characters and the performances he was able to derive from what is a notoriously tricky and risky demographic to work with. The performances from each of the young actors are seriously impressive, particularly from River Phoenix and Jerry O’Connnell. The rapport between the four boys feels genuine and earned, Rob Reiner put them through two weeks of acting games from Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theater” prior to shooting in an attempt to create a sense of real camaraderie and closeness between them. The beats of the more lighthearted dialogue feels exactly like four boys trying to one up each other; there is exaggeration and bravado and when pushed, a devastatingly placed insult about somebody’s mother and “two for flinching”. Some of Vern’s bits in particular are patently hilarious, especially where he brings along his comb in case they get interviewed on TV and his answer to the question of if he could only have one food for the rest of his life – “Pez. Cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it.” The more adrenalin inducing scenes, especially where the boys are running away from the oncoming train, are well done and well positioned in amongst the banter of the lads.
Some of the moments between the boys where they bring up their fears and vulnerabilities at times feels a little too laboured, a little too forced and a little too strategically placed, where even though you may believe River Phoenix’s tears, it’s more like tears from a grazed knee than because of deeply rooted torment. I think it would have probably been more impactful if there wasn’t so much of the boys interchanging their emotional anguish until they found the body. Once the boys find the body and Gordie breaks down, insisting that it should have been him who had died rather than his brother, that was the sort of thing that rang true because it felt like a genuine response to a pretty traumatising sight. The boys summoning their courage to stand up to Ace and his possy did however feel like a proper coming of age moment, especially in the face of such a terrifying character as Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace; that voice and empty black eyes is a harrowing image, when he pulled out his flick knife you genuinely believe that he would use it and find a way out of it.
I don’t think that “Stand By Me” will have the lasting impact that it undoubtedly has had on men of my parents’ generation, or even on those who watch it while the same age as the heroes of the story. There’s a lot to admire here though; some sensational performances from some talented young men, a resounding sense of adventure and a gentle reminder of the wonder that can be found in friendship.
By Jock Lehman