Stand By Me (United States, 1986)

June 18, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Stand By Me Poster

Stand By Me reinforces something that has been understood in Hollywood for decades: nostalgia sells. With this film, it's "planned nostalgia," meaning that the production was designed from the beginning to encourage older audience members to look back at their youth through rose-tinted glasses. Many movies develop a strong sense of nostalgia with the passage of the years, but Stand By Me had it from the beginning, peering through the veil of time separating the '80s (when it was produced and in which the bookend segments are set) from the '50s. The narrative is driven by the same sense of fondness for bygone years that has categorized the likes of A Christmas Story and the TV series The Wonder Years, both of which feature adult narrators recalling key moments from their early years.

Depending on your point-of-view, Stand By Me can be seen as either a coming-of-age story or a road trip. In reality, it's a little of both, although it bucks conventions of both genres. Unlike most coming-of-age tales, this one unfolds not over the course of a season or a year or a few years - it transpires over a period of less than 48 hours. And, unlike typical road trips, this one involves travel by foot, and not over an extended distance. Yet, in many ways, the story is more about what the characters discover along the way than what they find at the end, and their "growing up" is accelerated by lessons they learn about life and death. Few real-life individuals have adventures like the one embarked upon by the protagonists, but those who do emerge fundamentally changed.

The tale begins in the mid-1980s with a writer (played by Richard Dreyfus in a billed cameo) reading a newspaper article that causes him to reminisce about the waning days of the summer of 1959, when he was 12 years old in the town of Castle Rock, Oregon. The remainder of the movie, except for a brief epilogue, occurs in flashback. The story starts in a treehouse, with friends Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), and Teddy (Corey Feldman) playing cards. They are interrupted by the arrival of Vern (Jerry O'Connell), who has knowledge of where they can see the body of a dead boy. The quartet resolves to set off on an overnight trek to the location of the body, with vague thoughts of becoming heroes by locating it and telling the authorities. They're not the only ones interested in making the discovery - local high school bully Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland) is also on the search for what remains of Ray Brower, and he has a car to provide transportation and a knife and a few bully buddies to use for intimidation.

One of the most notable aspects of the character roster is the almost complete absence of females. While this is not uncommon in certain genres typically centered on male characters (war movies, for example), it is unusual for coming-of-age films, which almost always deal with sex in one form or another. However, by placing the protagonists at the age of 12, Stand By Me is able to insulate them from involvement with the opposite sex. During the era in which the film is set, children weren't as sexually precocious and adventuresome as they are today and, while there was certainly plenty of curiosity at age 12, co-ed friendships were more the exception than the norm. The obvious added benefit of keeping the cast male is that it allows the story to focus on the pre-teen aspects of male bonding. By limiting any sexual component, Stand By Me retains a certain air of innocence and charm.

As the four principals make their way through junkyards and leech-infested watery areas and along railroad tracks, they (and, by extension, we) learn things about their inner thoughts. Each wrestles with his own demons. Gordie's older brother (played in flashbacks by John Cusack), the "favorite son," died in a car crash, and Gordie is haunted by the realization that his parents believe the wrong child was killed. Chris comes from a loveless household and fears being trapped in the small town of his youth for the remainder of his life, depriving him of a fresh start. Teddy bears the scars of physical abuse from a mentally unstable father. And the overweight Vern is cowardly, frightened of life in general and taking risks in particular. As the journey progresses, the boys confess and confront their fears and, when they finally come upon the body, they are forced to face their mortality. The subsequent conflict with Ace's gang illustrates the strength of the ties that bind them. Those ties will dissolve over the years (how many adults are still best friends with their closest 12-year-old companions?) but, "in the moment," there is nothing stronger.

One of the most inventive segments of Stand By Me features a visual re-creation of a story that Gordie tells his friends. It's about a fat boy nicknamed Lardass who participates in a pie eating contest and, as a means of getting revenge upon the citizens of the town who have incessantly picked on him, he sets off a "barf-o-rama," that results in mass vomiting. For everyone listening to the Gordie's narration, there is satisfaction in the concept of a marginalized child achieving vengeance over those who bully him. For Gordie, it's a validation of his ability as a storyteller - a capability that his dead brother appreciated but which his parents dismiss.

For the leads, the filmmakers selected four of the most promising young actors on the horizon of American cinema. At the time, Wil Wheaton had only a small list of credits on his resume (mostly small parts and TV appearances), and Stand By Me would represent his breakthrough part. As was true for the slightly better-known River Phoenix, Wheaton's exceptional, unforced work in the film would open Hollywood to him. Within a year after Stand By Me's release, Wheaton was cast as the much-maligned Wesley Crusher in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation (although a lion's share of the derision heaped upon that character was the fault of poor writing, not of Wheaton's ability to inhabit the character). Phoenix appeared on the road to superstardom until his untimely 1993 death cut short his career. The movie's other two leads would have successful but more low-key careers. Corey Feldman, already recognizable at the time of Stand By Me's release as a result of parts in Gremlins and Goonies, worked frequently (mostly in low prestige productions) but battled drug addiction for many of his teenage and early adult years. Jerry O'Connell, who made his feature debut in Stand By Me, went on to work primarily in TV with occasional forays into low-profile films. Keifer Sutherland, son of veteran actor Donald Sutherland, would suffer future overexposure resulting from a disastrous romantic relationship with Julia Roberts (they co-starred in 1990's Flatliners) before bouncing back a decade later to become 24's iconic lead, Jack Bauer. Stand By Me shows Sutherland at his most vile and despicable, radiating a chilling degree of nastiness the actor would soon turn away from.

Stand By Me cemented director Rob Reiner's reputation as being able to direct across genres. This was his third film, and it was nothing like either of his previous efforts, the brilliant mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap and the solid romantic comedy The Sure Thing. His immediate follow-ups to Stand By Me would be The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. Stand By Me came in the midst of Reiner's most creatively rewarding period behind the camera. He also became one of only a handful of filmmakers to have success adapting a Stephen King story although, like Frank Darabont and The Shawshank Redemption, Reiner found King's non-horror stories to offer more fertile ground. (He would successfully transform another King tale to a movie with 1990's Misery.)

Stand By Me achieved strong across-the-board popularity upon its release. Older viewers appreciated the nostalgia aspects of the story, adolescent boys related to the main characters, and girls were attracted to the actors, especially Phoenix, who was becoming a teen sex symbol. Although not a blockbuster, Stand By Me was financially successful, with a domestic theatrical gross of approximately six times its budget. Although largely ignored by the Oscars (except for a lone Adapted Screenplay nomination), it was recognized by a large number of other award programs, including the DGA, WGA, Golden Globes, and Independent Spirit Awards. Most importantly, Stand By Me has stood the test of time, and remains one of those rare '80s films that shows no rust from age (due in part to its being a period piece). It's as effective in 2009 as it was upon its initial release, and the richness of its tapestry, densely woven from human emotions and character interaction, ensure it will never lose that relevance.

Stand By Me (United States, 1986)

Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 1986-08-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1