Stand by Me (1986)

24 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In a series of novellas called “Different Seasons” by Stephen King, the third (of four) novella—entitled “The Body”—uses the segment “Fall from Innocence,” meaning in all of our lives there is a time that changes our lives forever. Coming-of-age stories are the tales that showcase a character (or characters) going through important events in their lives. In “The Body,” the event for four pre-teenage boys is the journey to find a dead body and become famous for turning it in. They find the body, but they really find each other and learn some valuable life lessons. Despite being written by Stephen King, it isn’t a horror story. In fact, one of King’s strengths in his horror stories is the strong friendships that develop between the characters. This is simply a story of one of those friendships with no macabre elements (save for the sight of a corpse); just simple life lessons.

The novella is closely adapted into the film “Stand by Me.” You can put the praise onto the nostalgia aspects of the story, the convincing portrayals of these four compelling young characters by four excellent young actors, its honest look at their journey (psychologically, as well), or all of the above. Either way, “Stand by Me” is a wonderful movie. It’s one of the best teenage coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen. It’s fun, it’s touching, it’s believable, well-acted, well-executed, and when it needs to be, very funny. It’s the third outing for Rob Reiner as a director, after the success of “This is Spinal Tap” and “The Sure Thing.” His impressive streak continued with “Stand by Me.” Reiner knows the subject material by heart and, with an excellent screenplay by Ray Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, brings delight to the screen in telling this story.

Unlike most coming-of-age stories, this one takes place in just a couple of days, rather than a couple weeks, months, or even years. That’s how long it takes for these small-town Oregon treehouse boys to walk along the railroad tracks to find the dead body of a missing kid. It begins as pudgy, wimpy Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) arrives to the treehouse to tell his friends—Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman)—his knowledge of where it can be found. They decide to trek after it, turn it to the authorities, and become famous.

Where do I start with the effective drama in this movie?

Each of these boys have their own demons, as we learn through the journey. Gordie—who serves as the narrator of the story, voiced as an adult by Richard Dreyfuss—is haunted by the thought that his parents believe his late older brother—the “favorite son” (played in flashbacks by John Cusack)—was the wrong one that died. (He even has a nightmare in which his father states, “It should’ve been you.”) Chris comes from a family who doesn’t love him, has a reputation of being a bad seed like his brother “Eyeball” (Bradley Gregg), and just wants a fresh start, but feels trapped by his hometown. Teddy’s mentally unstable father, who wound up in a mental hospital, abused Teddy and no one ever lets him forget it. Vern is a coward, always afraid of trying anything new. Each of these elements are brought up and confronted along the way. They realize the good things they have in life—one is each other, and the other is their own abilities. In particular, Gordie is a creative storyteller and Chris is loyal and mostly takes the peaceful route. This is all told in a convincing, well-written, well-acted way that makes for one great scene after another. The most touching scene is when Chris finally breaks down and tells Gordie, his best friend for life, about the time he really felt let down.

The boys’ friendship is in danger of being torn apart. This is first brought up when Chris tells Gordie that he’ll be separated from him and the others, because he’ll achieve at a higher rank than them. Gordie doesn’t want that to happen, but it’s inevitable. Since Chris doesn’t want to drag Gordie down, he doesn’t want to fight it—he wants Gordie to use his gift of writing to succeed in life. No one’s friendship is the same as when they were 12 years old, but at the time, there’s nothing stronger than that bond.

Then once the kids find the body, they’re faced with their own mortality once it turns out that the town bullies, led by knife-wielding Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), show up and decide to claim it for themselves. It’s then that they realize what’s more important, what’s at stake.

This is great stuff! It’s all told in a very effective way and makes us believe in every detail these characters go through. But the movie isn’t so dramatic that it will turn people off—there is a lot of comic relief in many inventive scenes of comedy and adventure. In the latter category, we have the actual trek itself. The boys get attacked by a junkyard dog, which turns out to show as a real difference between fantasy and reality (it turns out to be a harmless-looking Golden Retriever); they go through leech-invested waters in the middle of the forest; and in the most exciting scene, they cross a railroad bridge and nearly get run down by an oncoming train. As for comedy, the best segment comes during the boys’ campout—it’s the story told by Gordie to the others about a tormented overweight boy who gets his revenge at a pie-eating contest, in the most disgusting and hilarious way. It works as comedy and as a concept of a disregarded child, giving come-uppance to his tormentors.

The comedy, drama, and adventure go great together, and the performances by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell are spot-on. They capture their personalities distinctively and memorably and make for great company to spend an hour-and-a-half with.

I love this movie. I love it so much that I’m sincerely hoping I’m not leaving anything out in this review. Sometimes, I want to hurry along a review and finish it. But with really great movies such as this one, I hope there’s nothing I’ve missed that needs to be brought up. I love “Stand by Me” that much.

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