The quintessential coming of age drama.
When you think of great Stephen King adaptations your mind immediately goes to The Shining (1980) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But one film that manages to transcend its short story King origins is Stand By Me. By all rights the film should have been a fairly straightforward road-trip style film but became something altogether familiar to the universal theme of childhood. A film that is about children rather than for them, laced with summer holidaynostalgia that is reminiscent to anyone who has fond memoires of their youth.
In the summer of 1959 Geordie (Wheaton) feels isolated from his family. His older brother having recently died in a car crash he finds solace in his best friends Chris (Phoenix), Teddy (Feldman) and Vern (O’Connell). When theylearn of the location of a local boy’s body they set out on a cross-country odyssey to find him, in the hope that it might get their pictures in the local paper. Along the way they will begin to learn about who they are, their strengths and weaknesses and what it means to leave childhood things behind them. All the while a local gang of youths, led by the threatening Ace (Sutherland) is tracking down the body and will make sure their younger counterparts have none of the glory they know is coming their way.
The film is set in a simpler time, there is no internet, no I-phones and no Justin Bieber for these teens to get wrapped up in. Their concerns are more pure, like who would win in a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman? Or if Mickey’s a Mouse, Pulto’s a dog then what is Goofy? It’s the kind of musing that makes you remember a time when the simple things in life meant something. What becomes clear is that these boys are on a physical and emotional journey of discovery and that, to hit on a cliché, the destination is the journey itself.
The closer the boys get to finding the body, the more they begin to reveal their true characters. Chris may be the natural leader but he has endless self-doubt about what he can achieve in life. Geordie has intelligence but it goes unseen by his parents. Teddy may have the bravado but he’s damaged by an abusive father who he cannot help but hero worship. All the while Vern has more resolve than he gives himself credit for, he may be the brunt of the jokes but it is him who sets the gang out on their quest.
All this is perfectly guided by Rob Reiner’s direction. Having recently made This Is Spinal Tap (1984) throwing his hat into more dramatic rings proves immense versatility. He never resorts to any flashy gimmickry but rather lets the narrative gently unfold all the while letting his bright young cast develop organically on camera.
And what a young cast they were. Wheaton, who would later go onto a successful role in Star Trek; The NextGeneration, brings huge vulnerability to Geordie. Feldman, the most experienced cast member at that point in their young careers, is jovial while bringing a sense of unhinged psychosis to Teddy. O’Connell in many ways feels like he is playing himself at that point in his life, the youngest member of the cast there is something loveably naïve about Vern that makes him all the more cuddly to behold. However, it is a burgeoning River Phoenix who stole the show all those years ago. Watching him now there is a certain level of destiny about his part of Chris Chambers, a bad boy misunderstood who longs to be more than his reputation. Such is his gravity on screen that he leads the whole film as well as the group of boys.
Stand By Me is a film that is able to speak to every new generation discovers it. A film that directly reflects on what it means to be young and have your whole life in front of you. The ending was poignant at the time but since Phoenix’s untimely death now echoes in such a way as to make it heartbreakingly real. Stand By Me will stay with you forever and, like a great novel, will want to be passed on to as many new viewers as possible.
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