Stand By Me April 28, 2016
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” The Writer (Richard Dreyfuss) reflects at the end of Stand By Me. “Jesus, does anyone?”
A story of male bonding that dances to the beat of adolescence, nostalgia, and the 1950s, Stand By Me is a coming-of-age film of acuity and acceptably genial sentimentality, as oftentimes funny as it is soul-baring. Adapted from the novella of the same name by Stephen King, it is an uncommonly wise genre film aching with a bittersweetness that manages to get to you without being coy about it.
Set in 1959 over Labor Day weekend, the film stars Wil Wheaton as Gordie Lachance, a vulnerable preteen whose family life has been dramatically deterred by the tragic death of his older brother (John Cusack). The younger version of The Writer, Gordie predominantly spends his after school hours with a trio of boys who differ in personality but compare in their lack of self-confidence. There’s Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), a ne’er-do-well in the making whose family’s reputation precedes him; Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), the cocky but damaged son of an abuser; and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell), a stocky jokester who hides his insecurities with humor, intentionally or otherwise.
Their relationships are tested, though, when Vern informs them that he knows the whereabouts of a missing classmate, whose dead body lays twenty-some miles away after being struck by a train. It’s only a rumor — Vern’s grapevine of information came from eavesdropping on his older brother — but all are curious, wanting to have an adventure, see what a dead body looks like, and maybe even become local heroes in the process. Having terrible kinships with their families and therefore unworried about such mundanities as curfews, they start on their journey without hesitation. And so begins a weekend’s worth of adherence, revelatory exchanges, and golden moments of memory making; all will be changed, for better or worse, after their exploits come to a close.
While its premise remains simple, Stand By Me is the effectual comedy-drama that it is because it’s so rooted in accessibility. Like Dreyfuss’s wizened Writer, we can all agree that the friends we made during our youth are perhaps the best friends a person can have. There’s something markedly precious about that short period before puberty when nobody knows anything about life yet, when imaginations still have the capacity to run wild but are restrained by the figuring out of one’s identity. And Stand By Me, capturing that susceptible time with singular clarity, is all the more impactful because of it. The screenplay, co-written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, is remarkable in the way it so pitch-perfectly captures the way wily twelve-year-olds interact with one another, jokingly or emotionally. Rob Reiner, an ace of the 1980s popcorn movie, directs with saccharine that feels completely appropriate rather than helplessly maudlin.
But we, of course, take such a liking to Stand By Me as a result of its young performers, who inhabit their characters blisteringly and arrestingly. O’Connell plays comic relief with naturally humorous flair, more in the spirit of a weathered comedian than a child actor. Feldman is understatedly poignant as a kid who covers his neuroses with wit that seems to be increasingly lined in self-doubt the more we get to know him.
But especially stellar are Wheaton and Phoenix, whose characters are the closest of the bunch and whose performances are prodigiously stirring. Whereas O’Connell and Feldman prove to be items (though delightful ones) of background, Wheaton and Phoenix are distinctly three-dimensional, both, on separate occasions, having breakdowns in the arms of the other and radiating sympathetic pain that we respond to with immediacy. No one in its juvenile cast descends into camera-mugging territory — all spitefully mature and all gifted actors, it’s incredible that the age range of its central quartet only ranges from twelve to fifteen. Some adult professionals struggle to capture similar nuance.
But that’s why Stand By Me has lasted so long as a childhood classic for the people who grew up with it: it doesn’t know what artificiality is, and doesn’t know how to stay secure in the downfalls of redundant formula. Its sincerity is everlasting, its emotional content invigoratingly unfeigned. You’d have to be fitted with an ash covered heart to turn your back on its loving melancholy. A-