It’s time once again for a movie recommendation, and what better film to recommend for the holiday season than a sensitive coming-of-age story about four childhood friends seeking a corpse? The film in question is Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell as young friends Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern, respectively.
Stand by Me is undoubtedly one of the disproportionately few truly great films in the staggeringly immense catalogue of movies based on the writing of Stephen King. It is a grounded and realistic story of a weird-yet-simple adventure. Yet the impressiveness of its achievement is not its success as a King adaptation; the impressiveness of its achievement is its success as a movie about childhood. For every piece of writing King has penned and seen turned terrible on the big screen, there are at least five failed attempts to capture the experience of childhood, which is Stand by Me‘s greatest strength.
As tempting as it is to dissect what makes this movie great in minute detail, I intend to instead keep this one spoiler-free in the hopes that any and all interested parties will find a way to watch it. Instead, I want to talk about what sets this movie apart from all those other attempts to capture childhood.
First, I think movies about youth can be separated into two distinct categories: the ones that cater to children, and the ones that cater to adults. The first type is much more common, and is often cheery, bright, and packed with comedy. These are not necessarily worse than the second type, and some of my most beloved movies, such as The Goonies (admittedly, admirably un-cheery at times) and The Sandlot, fall into this category. But in many cases the comedic or pandering elements of other films of this type seem defensive—possibly designed to deflect criticism of their weaknesses or possibly just lazily produced.
The second type aims to distill the experience, essence, or meaning of childhood as a lost period of life for an older audience. And these attempts also have their failings, as the plot conveniences, unrealistic dialogue, and few instances of very weak acting in Richard Linklater’s otherwise quality film Boyhood demonstrate (for a short video, with which I largely agree, on Boyhood‘s strengths and weaknesses, click here).
The rarity of the second type needs no explanation; it’s easier to market a movie to the demographics of the primary actors. In this sense, Stand by Me is squarely in the second camp, as evidenced by its highly unique position as a movie with only children in starring roles which nevertheless has an R rating (unique, that is, barring extreme examples like the NC-17 Harmony Korine movie Kids).
As much as that first type is not necessarily worse, much of the power of Stand by Me comes from its opposition to the conventions of that first type. Where they are cheery and bright, Stand by Me oscillates between tense character development scenes and lighter adventure motifs. Where they are defensively comedic, Stand by Me is unapologetically dramatic.
With all this in mind, Stand by Me nails its tone perfectly. The edge of darkness inherent in their task is never far from the viewer’s mind as you learn about the troubling past and present of the stalwart four. Reiner manages to get sustained, sincere, and believable performances out of four child actors. That alone would be nothing short of amazing, and in particular River Phoenix and Corey Feldman put in great acting in their roles (in my opinion, Feldman’s portrayal of Stand by Me‘s Teddy Duchamp surpasses his great work in Gremlins and The Goonies as the best he’s ever done).
But Stand by Me‘s tonal perfection extends to its structural elements, thanks to King (as well as screenwriters Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans). The slow reveal of the character details is well-paced and interesting, and the odd situations in which they find themselves never excessively strain credulity. A good example of this movie’s fidelity to reality is the bizarre and disgusting revenge story that ostensible protagonist/narrator Gordie Lachance tells the other boys. This meta-narrative is unlikely to appeal to the older audience of Stand by Me, but it captures the immaturity of budding creativity in a way that most artists would rather conceal.
Richard Dreyfuss (whose work I have previously praised for Close Encounters of the Third Kind) provides narration that undergirds the project’s reminiscent or nostalgic sensibilities. The film culminates in a powerful-yet-understated closing monologue by Dreyfuss that is notable not just among its childhood film peers but in the genre of drama generally.
It seems somehow poetic that Stand by Me came out in the year after the 1985 releases of The Breakfast Club and The Goonies, as this movie manages to have the very best of both: the (mostly) well-acted, slowly building character development of the The Breakfast Club in its presentation of an ephemeral formative event in a group of young lives, and the undercurrent of dangerous reality belying the superficial happiness of The Goonies in its youthful adventure. Stand by Me‘s principal topics of innocence and youthful friendship are fairly common, but its sensitive and enjoyable execution makes both topics stick in the mind long after the credits start rolling.