35 Years Later, Stand By Me Is Still A Perfect Movie
On its 35th anniversary, it’s clear Stand By Me has always been a masterpiece: then, today and forevermore.
Through an old-timey Columbia Pictures screen and silent titles, the movie drifts open on the golden hour; silhouetted hills encroached by sepia skies, open fields basking in the setting sun. A grown-up Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) gazes out at two boys cycling by; the cruel world laying ahead, but likely on top of them too.
Every annual rewatch of Rob Reiner’s classic grows just as sobering as it is heartening. Jack Nitzsche’s thrumming score to Ben E. King’s ballad in the opening minutes has the evocative power of a flashback for all of us; a woodwind melody for times remembered and lost, friends here and gone, when everyone’s town was their ‘whole world’.
Prior to the Stephen King renaissance in the late 2010s – thanks in part to Stranger Things‘ revival of 80s nostalgia – Stand By Me was a flawlessly-cut diamond among the author’s adaptations. Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption and Misery – also directed by Reiner – are certifiable successes, but this movie feels like the purest representation of his peerless flair for coming-of-age stories.
Based on his then-little-known novella The Body, it follows Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) on a hike along the tracks and across the state to find the dead body of a local teenager, believing their discovery will make them heroes – or better yet, they’ll be in the newspaper.
While The Goonies, which only came out a year prior, sends its central goofs on the hunt for treasure against the cutesy backdrop of a local community being displaced, Stand By Me‘s thematic context is much darker. Then again, it’s never really about the glory of the destination; each of the boys are distracting themselves from the bubbling agony of their lives.
Gordie is the ‘invisible boy’ at home, having lost his all-star brother (played charmingly by John Cusack) in a car accident. While his parents yearn for their dead child, Gordie is stuck in his sibling’s shadow, fearing a life without him and never living up to his mum and dad’s expectations.
Chris comes from ‘a bad family and everyone just knew he’d turn out bad… including Chris’, Dreyfuss narrates. ‘I’m never gonna get out of this town, am I, Gordie?’ he asks, all too set on his own destiny – something that carries a heavy toll by the credits.
Teddy has to contend with defending his abusive father ‘who stormed the beaches at Normandy’ and also burned his ear on a stove, presumably in a PTSD-rooted rage. Vern is the butt of the group’s jokes, and ‘sincerely’ wants to fit in with his cooler pals, whose chiller attitudes contrast with his nervousness.
King is particularly adept at sketching the joy of seemingly careless youth with harsher realities woven in. For example, Pennywise isn’t the only horror in IT; it’s the apathy of adults who leave the Loser’s Club alone in their fight.
Reiner’s grasp never keeps this quality from shining through; if anything, the director’s dab hand and personal affection for the material makes it even clearer. ‘It was the first time that I did anything that was closely connected to my own personality,’ he told Variety. On Reddit, he also said it’s his personal favourite of the movies he’s made.
Moment-to-moment, Stand By Me has a spiritual clarity other movies can only dream of. Thomas Del Ruth’s ever-so-slightly hazy cinematography under the haven of blue skies sustains the feeling of a daydream, and Reiner’s pacing never steps wrong, with a complete detour into the tale of Lard-Ass breezing by but feeling totally integral.
The script, penned by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, sings with resonance, laced with ‘the kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls’: debating who’d win between two fictional characters with studious logic; discussing shapely cartoon women; deciding what food you’d have for the rest of your life; sharing stories of local mythos, like the junkyard’s vicious dog Chopper. ‘Sic balls!’
Of course, the film is wonderful for adults, but it’s best viewed first as a child. Multitudes of generations have felt a kinship with the quartet in their conversational cursing, ‘two for flinching’ games and hilarious put-downs. For example, when Teddy says he’ll be across the bridge relaxing with his thoughts, Gordie quips, ‘Do you use your right hand or your left hand for that?’
The fact these young boys have always transcended their nostalgic setting, tuned with older music like The Chordettes’ Lollipop, small details like the eye-watering past prices of Coca-Cola and rapidly expiring forms of fun, like huddling around and spitting water into a can (or just playing outdoors, at all), is nothing short of amazing.
The strength of their performances obviously helps. Wheaton’s hangdog turn is underrated, particularly as it drew so heavily on his own childhood experiences, while Feldman and O’Connell imbue the funniest parts with a subtle, undeniable sadness (before Birds of Prey’s egg sandwich, there was Vern’s comb).
Phoenix is on another planet. At such a young age, it was clear he was a one-of-a-kind talent – not once in a generation, well beyond that. From ‘I wish to hell I was your dad’ to the campfire breakdown, his gravitas is agonising. Not far off 30 years later, his loss still feels like a true theft, and it only makes Chris’s arc more devastating.
‘Last week he entered a fast food restaurant. Just ahead of him, two men got into an argument. One of them pulled a knife. Chris, who would always make the best peace, tried to break it up. He was stabbed in the throat. He died almost instantly.’ Watching his strolling figure vanish into the past cripples me every time.
Look back on your childhood. Think about those giddy walks – long and winding, short and sweet – we all took for granted. They were just ways to pass the time back then; now, they’re some of our most formative odysseys, tinged with melancholy at how simple life was, and how irreparably it’s changed.
Nothing I’ll write will ever match the sentiment of Stand By Me‘s final words: ‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?’
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