Synopsis: In a small woodsy Oregon town, a group of friends — sensitive Gordie (Wil Wheaton), tough-guy Chris (River Phoenix), flamboyant Teddy (Corey Feldman), and scaredy-cat Vern (Jerry O’Connell) — are in search of a missing teenager’s body. Wanting to be heroes in each others’ and their hometown’s eyes, they set out on an unforgettable two-day trek that turns into an odyssey of self-discovery. They sneak smokes, tell tall tales, cuss ’cause it’s cool, and band together when the going gets tough. When they encounter the town’s knife-wielding hoods who are also after the body, the boys discover a strength they never knew they had. Stand By Me is a rare and special film about friendship and the indelible experiences of growing up. Filled with humor and suspense, it is based on the novella The Body by Stephen King.
Stand by Me 8.5
“I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in the summer of 1959-a long time ago, but only if you measure in terms of years. I was living in a small town in Oregon called Castle Rock. There were only twelve hundred and eighty-one people. But to me, it was the whole world.”
What in the world happened to Rob Reiner? Seriously, how is it that this once-remarkable director has lost his way? This is a guy who could do no wrong; in less than a decade, he hammered out classic after classic: ‘This is Spinal Tap’, ‘The Sure Thing’, ‘Stand by Me’, ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘When Harry Met Sally…’, ‘Misery’ and ‘A Few Good Men’.
Okay, ‘A Sure Thing’ wasn’t. But it’s a decent film and, given that it was his second time in the director’s chair, he could have done a heck of a lot worse. And all of these films were released from 1984 to 1993! That’s seven films in nine years! And most of them are regarded as noteworthy -if not essentials- by more people than you can count. In my estimation, five of them are absolutely unavoidable.
This coming-of-age story, this tale of friendship between four twelve-year-old boys, is as emotionally-potent as it feels honest, true. Their journey down the railroad tracks to find the dead body of a missing boy, dreaming of the fame that would accompany such a discovery, is more about the relationships than about their adventures – it’s all in the dialogue, their exchanges.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of small moments to keep the story going along, but they’re about as dramatic as a walk in the woods will ever get – the action comes slow and relatively uneventfully. Some of my favourites are their encounter with Chopper the mythical junkyard beast, their perilous trip across the bridge, and, of course, the tale of the pie-eating contest.
It may sound extremely unexciting, but what makes it so appealing is our attachment to these kids, who are immediately familiar and remind us of the children we once were; I could absolutely relate to these characters and their story had echoes of my own childhood. So when the boys have heart-to-heart talks about their family lives, their inner pains, fears and dreams, it’s almost impossible to not be transported by their side.
It not only resonates on an emotional level, but the film is also quite funny. As they say, boys will be boys, and these four poke fun at each other all the time, coming up with countless amusing taunts. Thankfully, they never truly pick at each other’s vulnerabilities, it never becomes cruel and they all know that it’s meant for laughs, which makes it okay. And, anyway, its usually an excuse for equally side-splitting retort.
The casting is of utmost importance in a film as dialogue-driven as this one. Unfortunately, not all of the performers are up to snuff – some are much stronger than others and the weakest aren’t exactly convincing. But they all have a presence that justifies their selection for their respective parts; from the moment that we meet each of them, they define and sustain their characters for the rest of the film. That, in itself, is quite impressive.
River Phoenix, in particular, is quite good as Chris; he’s by far the best of the bunch. While Chris remains slightly enigmatic, he’s also the most emotionally-sincere and perhaps the smartest of them all – at least, in a street-smart way, if not a book-smart one. I loved how protective he was of his friends and how grounded he could be.
Corey Feldman isn’t exactly a terrific actor, but there is a maturity in his face that belies his age. He was essential to the part and I don’t know if anyone else could have done Teddy justice. Still, it’s too bad that he appears to be acting the part instead of being the part – it kills some of his more dramatic scenes, the ones that should express his character’s core the most.
Wil Wheaton annoyed me to no end in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’; to me, he was a constipated, whiny-pants and I would gladly have given him a transporter trip into the cold of space or in solid rock. Thankfully, I can stand him in ‘Stand by Me’. Still, he looks like he just had a root canal; he’s often numb and inarticulate. But his Gordie is likeable and relatable enough that it flies.
Jerry O’Connell is the worst of the bunch. Geez, he’s horrible. Sometimes you can even see him start to laugh when he should be angry. Granted, that may simply be due to poor editing choices, but it’s still indicative of his inability to deliver. Vern was a familiar archetype to me: I once hung out with a chubby, slightly immature kid like that from time to time. Nice kid, but with all the makings of a wholly unspectacular adult.
(As a side-note, what’s up with O’Connell? How did he go from being a chubby moron in ‘Stand by Me’ to being a muscle-bound sleezebag in ‘Piranha 3D’? You can barely recognize the kid. Or his career )
John Cusack shows up as Gordie’s older brother. He’s brilliant here. It was nice to revisit the old Cucask, the one that isn’t all puffy and dour. Here, he offered a shining light for his little brother, being extremely caring, generous, appreciative and humble. It’s a nice cameo. No doubt that Reiner had enjoyed his experience with him in ‘The Sure Thing’ and wanted a repeat performance.
Kiefer Sutherland has a slightly bigger part, playing the ring leader of a small gang of teenage hoodlums. He’s the kids’ primary antagonist and does it convincingly; Sutherland has always been good at channeling confidence, so villainy isn’t a challenge for him. He does have a hard time with expressing a larger emotional range, but it’s not a huge concern for this part.
Richard Dreyfus plays the older Gordie, who relives his childhood upon hearing of the death of one of his old friends. It’s a bit part, but it was nice to see a veteran fill those adult shoes – it immediately gave him credibility, for lack of screen time to actually prove himself.
‘Stand by Me’ not only suffers from inadequate performances, but also from some technical weaknesses. The editing may have been a problem from time to time, but I also noticed some directorial choices that were questionable. The pie-eating contest, in particular, had a couple of deficiencies that should have been fixed, such as the fat suit on the hero of that story (it looked like he was wearing umpire padding under his shirt ) and the way the projectile-vomiting was staged (which clearly showed that it was coming from beside the actors! )
These problems are completely overwhelmed by the strength of the script and overall result, thankfully. However, if not for these issues, I believe that ‘Stand by Me’ would be one of the greatest films of the last 50 years. And even as is, it’s a remarkable film and one of the best that the ’80s offered.
Not only does ‘Stand by Me’ serve up a light, enjoyable adventure, but it reaches out to the twelve year olds in all of us. Almost everyone can relate to this kind of slow summer day with friends: whether one is younger (in which case it offers characters to look up to), approximately of that age (in which case one can easily connect) or much older (in which case one can revisit a past life), almost everyone has had a day or two like it.
…and friends like these. ‘Stand by Me’ it about the strength of childhood friendships and how adulthood changes the way that we relate. It speaks of a time when there is absolutely nothing stronger than the bonds we have with our peers, of a time beyond the omnipotence of family and before the omnipresence of romantic relationships in our lives.
As the older Gordie says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”. For many of us, this couldn’t possibly be truer. That’s what makes ‘Stand by Me’ so wonderful; it gives us a chance to relive those moments, to take a trip through time, if only for a mere 90 minutes.
Vern: “Come on you guys. Let’s get moving.”
Teddy: “Yeah, by the time we get there, the kid won’t even be dead anymore.”