So since I couldn’t get my act together and decide on a theme for this month’s TBT reviews, we’re going to have another one of those random picks months, and that’s okay I guess because it’s only September. Plenty of time before the year’s out to make good on coming up with a scheduled list of films to watch and review for this feature. Today we have a good one. . . if you like movies about kids walking down railroad tracks, that is. (I do. I like those kinds of movies.)
Today’s food for thought: Stand By Me.
Looking for a dead body since: Friday, August 22, 1986
Rob Reiner, channeling his strongest nostalgic tendencies, created a wonderful coming-of-age drama with the tale of four boys set out on their own to find the body of a missing local teen. As was the case with his masterpiece The Princess Bride, Stand By Me yearns for a simpler time when kids could just be free to roam, and other than worrying about the dropping of the nuclear bomb, adults had a slightly less pessimistic worldview.
Of course, his adaptation of the Stephen King novel — the most feel-good of all the King adaptations — wasn’t about the grown-ups. In fact, with the exception of the framing device of an older Gordie Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss) reflecting back on his childhood adventures after seeing a newspaper article about the death of one of his friends, a few short clips of Gordie’s parents and an old, crusty junkyard owner the film was essentially driven by child actors. An impressive feat, given how good the acting is; how deep the camaraderie between this ragtag group of boys goes.
We meet all four in a treehouse, where Gordie (Wil Wheaton), his best bud Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), the outspoken Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and the chubby, nervous and generally irritating Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) are discussing the possibility of going out to find the body of a kid who went missing from their town of Castle Rock some time recently. Vern, having broached the subject, claims he got the idea after overhearing his older brother and his obnoxious friend talking about it. It takes these kids but a few minutes to decide that they want to be the ones who uncover the body. After all, they could become local heroes because of it. Over the next two days, they embark on a journey down a railroad line, an adventure that encompasses their collective past, present and future.
Stand By Me is aggressively enjoyable. From astute performances from such young actors to the simplistic yet creative setting, Reiner found a perfect mixture of tone and tempo in his lamenting over the fact that childhood is a bubble that pops far too easily. The film had to rely heavily on the camaraderie of our explorers in order to overcome the monotony of sticking to a never-ending railroad track while also depending on precise editing and a variety of scene changes so that the whole enterprise didn’t feel experimental. It’s pretty successful on all fronts.
Reiner’s use of the railroad linking the boys to a destiny marked by danger and loss of innocence was a stroke of genius. Rather than manifesting as an obligatory check list of items that needed to be ticked because of preconceived notions of what a coming-of-age drama is (or was), the events that come to define Stand By Me occur naturally and as close to extemporaneously as the most polished version of a script could possibly allow. The scrapyard break-in, the bridge crossing debacle, the leech-infested swamp — none of these eye-opening moments would have been possible if the story were told after-the-fact in that treehouse, or from any quaint locale in Castle Rock for that matter.
The film isn’t free of cliches of course. Personal fears of a mostly familial nature run the gamut from being unable to escape the past — the Chambers being widely known for their alcoholism and criminal activity — to being inadequate in a family (Gordie considers the loss of his older brother Denny to be the last time he felt any kind of attention from his parents) and to being psychologically and emotionally traumatized in an abusive household, as was the case for Teddy whose father was a war vet suffering from PTSD. It’s all stuff we’ve encountered before in these movies but familiar ground does not contribute to an overly familiar expedition.
Ultimately the film has the advantage of being even more interesting if we put ourselves in these kids’ shoes. If given the opportunity as a child to see a dead body, would we? At what age does the sanctity of a human life strike someone, and is it the same for everyone? What would a weekend trip like this do to us? If we were in their shoes, would we be tempted to kick Kiefer Sutherland’s ass? Stand By Me may have offered Sutherland one of his most ridiculous roles as a punk teenager on the hunt for the same kind of infamy as these boys, though it is far more memorable because of its investment in the preciousness of childhood, and being able to pinpoint the precise moment at which boys are no longer boys.
Recommendation: Stand By Me is a classic coming-of-ager, told through Rob Reiner’s sensitivity and deft humor. It’s also highly nostalgic for the years where not much seemed to matter apart from getting into trouble with your friends in the summer. Oh yeah, I guess this was set in the 50’s so you always had to keep an eye out for that dreaded nuclear bomb. I guess there was that.
Running Time: 89 mins.
Quoted: “At the beginning of the school year, Vern had buried a quart jar of pennies underneath his house. He drew a treasure map so he could find them again. A week later, his mom cleaned out his room and threw away the map. Vern had been trying to find those pennies for nine months. Nine months, man. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
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