#190 Stand By Me

(1986, Rob Reiner)

“I had never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve”

Stephen King is an author best known for his horror work (and we’ve seen him before with the likes of Carrie and The Shining) but sometimes he likes to branch out. This was most obvious in his 1982 novella collection, Different Seasons, which brought together four non-horror stories under the vague theme of changing seasons. Three of these were adapted into movies, and we’ve actually seen one already – Rita Hayworth & The Shawshank Redemption – and now it’s time to talk about the second, originally called The Body, but adapted for the screen into Stand By Me.

The entire film is a flashback narrated by Gordie Lachance (narration provided by Richard Dreyfuss), a writer (if you’re playing the Stephen King drinking game, take a shot now). In his flashback, he remembers growing up in Oregon (don’t take a shot, it’s not Maine) back in 1959. Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is part of a group of kids from dysfunctional backgrounds. Following the death of Gordie’s older brother Denny (John Cusack), his father resents him. His friend Chris (River Phoenix) has an alcoholic father, Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is overweight and timid, and Teddy (Corey Feldman) is mentally unstable following abuse from his father, currently locked up in an insane asylum.

Vern one day overhears news that a couple of local bullies may have found the body of Ray Brower, another kid in the area who’s recently gone missing. Vern passes this information onto his friends, and together they journey along the railroad tracks to see the body for themselves before news reaches lead bully “Ace” (Kiefer Sutherland).

When Stand By Me started, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. A movie led entirely by child actors didn’t sound too appealing, and the story suggested it could lead into sappy, daytime TV territory. It didn’t help that initially I was put off by both O’Connell and Feldman’s acting, since they came across as annoying and slightly whiny.

But I was proved wrong. While neither of those two ever really stopped being bad in my eyes, both Wheaton and Phoenix offset it fantastically. No wonder Phoenix is so widely mourned and Wheaton has since become King Of The Nerds™ when they had this in their early film history.

Phoenix is excellent, balancing the struggles of his alcoholic family background with the reality that he’s actually a pretty decent kid. At times the performance is so mature it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a child at all, and instead seeing a conflicted adult.

Wheaton handles his role in much the same way, but has the added challenge of taking up more screen time, especially in the flashback scenes with his brother, the only family member who ever loved him. Wheaton’s performance makes it impossible not to care for this poor unloved child, but not once does he overplay it, despite how easy it could have been to do so.

I also enjoyed Sutherland as the local king of the bullies. Sure, his character was an irredeemable ass who goes much further than many real life bullies ever would, but Sutherland carried it well. His performance presented a teenager you do not want to mess with, although whether or not this has anything to do with the fact the teenager ultimately grows up to be Jack Bauer in 24 isn’t clear.

Story-wise, it’s hit and miss. There isn’t much of a plot here, truthfully, since it’s basically four friends walking along some railway tracks, but it has its moments. Seeing the much-feared dog at the junkyard was hilarious, Wheaton and Phoenix have a surprisingly mature heart-to-heart about their futures, there’s a tense moment when the kids are chased by a train and the ultimate confrontation with Ace is excellent.

But it’s not perfect. Gordie tells one of his stories to the others, involving vomiting at a pie-eating contest, and it’s kind of embarrassing to watch (and I hope Dreyfuss!Gordie is a much better writer). The build-up to the train sequence was a little predictable. The scene with the leeches was also a little uncomfortable to watch at times.

But the movie ultimately won me over with its last line, which isn’t even spoken. We simply see Dreyfuss!Gordie type the last line of his memoir (ie. the story we just watched) into his ancient computer, and it genuinely brought tears to my eyes. After watching a movie about a strong friendship played by two stellar child actors, that line is enough to flood the viewer’s head with memories of their own childhood friends. It certainly did for me.

So that’s Stand By Me, and I liked it. I may not view Stephen King as the best writer in the world (the existence of a drinking game shows he can be a little predictable), but I don’t think I’ve seen a movie based on his work that I’ve not liked so far. That’s a pretty good pedigree, I’d say.

Starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell & Kiefer Sutherland
Written by Stephen King (novella – The Body) and Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon
Produced by Bruce A. Evans & Andrew Scheinman
Music by Jack Nitzsche
Cinematography by Thomas Del Ruth
Edited by Robert Leighton

Favourite Scene: When Gordie and Chris discuss their futures at school together, it’s fantastic.
Scene That Bugged Me: The pie-eating contest. That was the moment the movie switched from nostalgic drama for adults to a dumb kids’ movie for about ten minutes. Unnecessary.

Watch it if: You miss your childhood friends
Avoid it if: You keep expecting Ace to go off and shoot some terrorists

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Posted on June 5, 2013, in 1980s, Drama and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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