"I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?"
Two months and thirty years ago, Rob Reiner's film Stand by Me was first released.* An adaptation of Steven King's 1982 novella The Body, it still remains one of the most poignant coming of age stories to grace our screens. Why is Stand by Me so affecting? Why has this film not been forgotten amidst the many others of its kind? Three decades later, I take a look back at this classic to explain it's lasting impact.
It still remains one of the most poignant coming-of-age stories to grace our screens.
Set in 1959, Stand by Me follows four boys from the small fictional town of Castle Rock who embark on an adventure to find the dead body of a missing kid. The group consists of Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O'Connell). As with all of King's works, the characters each have their own detailed and compelling story. Gordie, whose older brother Denny has died, is quiet and neglected by his parents. Chris comes from a rough family of alcoholics and criminals, but seeks to do better and escape the confines of Castle Rock. Teddy is erratic and deeply defensive of his father, a war veteran who likely suffers from PTSD. Vern is your typical shy, wimpy 12 year old.
These characters are interesting and easy to empathize with. The story might involve the quest to find the dead body, but really what this film is about is the kids. It's about them coping with their own personal issues while simultaneously coming to terms with the fact that high school is about to begin. As it is/was for many of us, high school is more than a simple change of routine for the protagonists of Stand By Me. It means growing up and making real decisions, it means saying farewell to their innocent treehut days and it means potentially losing the closeness of their friendship as they each take different paths.
The story might involve the quest to find the dead body, but really what this film is about is the kids.
This friendship is where the film really shines. The script, which is identical in parts to King's novel and very close everywhere else, is phenomenal. The banter between the four boys is basically the best thing ever. Oh, and the singing. And the pranks. From the moment Gordie enters that treehut we are 100 percent convinced of their friendship, in part due to the fact that they actually did get along in real life, but it's mostly because of the outstanding acting.
These kids perform as finely as any seasoned actor. Feldman is flawless as Teddy — wacky and eccentric but with a soft streak. However, it's Phoenix that truly steals the show. Just 15 at the time of filming, he is wise, tough and earnest, making us laugh, cry (a little) and contemplate life. As Chris fades out in his final scene, there is an eerie sadness. Just seven years after Stand By Me, Phoenix would die from a drug overdose. The film captures the spirit of a highly talented actor who tragically never reached his full potential. For this reason alone it deserves a place in history.
From the moment Gordie enters that treehut we are 100 percent convinced of their friendship.
So, what is it about Stand By Me? It's the acting, the script, the bittersweet coming-of-age story. It's also the late-'50s setting. This film will have you feeling all nostalgic and wishing for simpler times just one scene in. The clothing is perfect, making one long for the day when faded blue Levis and Chuck Taylors was the accepted look everywhere. The music deserves praise as well — that is one killer soundtrack, my friends. You'll be snapping your fingers and doing the twist in no time. All of the above combined, this is a film worth watching. And then re-watching. Thirty years down the track, it still packs a punch — something you can't say about just any old film. Somehow, I think the effect will still be the same in another 30.
Watch the trailer for Stand By Me below.
* Stand by Me was released on August 8, 1986. Source: Box Office Mojo. Other sources have it listed as August 22, 1986.