Rob Reiner’s quintessential 1986 coming-of-age film Stand By Me still remains one of the most poignant cinematic tributes to childhood and lost innocence, setting itself apart from other classics like The Goonies or more recent works like the Netflix series Stranger Things with its honesty and pathos.
Based on the 1982 novella The Body by Stephen King, the film beautifully explores how death affects the psyche of a child. Memory acts as the binding force between life and death as we transition from a stranger sitting in a car, looking at a news report of a lawyer’s death to the summer of 1959 in the fictional small town of Castle Rock, Maine, when the narrator was just twelve-years-old. Reiner sets the tone, or appears to do so, by making the narrator recall, “I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.”
We are introduced to four stock characters in a treehouse that acts as a microcosm of teenage absurdity. Gordie (played by Wil Wheaton) is a troubled boy who is trying to cope with the recent loss of his elder brother and is misunderstood by his own family, he is the dreamer who has a flair for writing captivating stories. Chris (played by River Phoenix) is the product of a dysfunctional family and is already addicted to smoking cigarettes, he is assigned the performative stereotype of being “the bad apple”. Vern (played by Jerry O’Connell) is the chubby kid who is often dismissed because he is immature and finally, Teddy (Corey Feldman) is the outspoken “weirdo” whose identity is defined by that unfortunate event when his father tried to burn his ear off. Reiner’s greatest achievement in the film is to turn these one-dimensional archetypes into truly unique characters with their own problems and more importantly, their own voices. He depicts not just the charm of youth but also the complexities of those teenage years.
The “MacGuffin” of the story, in the traditional sense, is the body of a missing child named Ray Brower who is rumoured to be dead. The audience never really feels the urgency which the four boys experience when they set out to look for it but it motivates most of the events on screen. Like all good cinematic journeys, it becomes more of an incursion into the psychological recesses of childhood trauma rather than fixating on the childish obsession with a dead body. Reiner makes the characters unravel as they slowly travel along train tracks, rejecting the haste of modernity and immersing themselves in the seemingly endless experience of a childhood adventure. Armed with a gun that Chris stole from his father, a few dollars and the inquisitiveness of young explorers, the four children embark to confront death.
Stand By Me conducts a remarkable investigation of American identities by constructing family identities, ones which are decided by the society they live in and are almost impossible to escape. Adding to that discourse, the children have elder brothers who have adopted the recklessness of young adults and have passed their prejudices down to their younger counterparts. Homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia are weaved into the language that the children learn from their families. It is an interesting phenomenon because their elder brothers serve as reflections of what society thinks the children are going to turn out to be but they refuse to accept that. These identities are also formed by class conflicts, most evident in the character of Chris. Gordie’s father thinks he is a thief and Chris himself addresses this inherent divide, “It’s the way the people think of my family in this town. It’s the way they think of me”. This is one of the most important moments in the film because its honesty is visceral in nature. Chris is certainly more mature than the other kids but we learn this is mostly because of the sadness of self-awareness, a dejected acceptance of one’s lot in life.
“Father is eternally tragic,” wrote Japanese poet Sakutarō Hagiwara and that is certainly the case for Gordie, the film’s protagonist. His father is the typical patriarch who disregards anything his wife has to say and only devoted all his attention to his elder son, the football star, while he was still alive. Gordie is constantly conflicted because his passion for writing is dismissed by his father and his brother, the only person who understood him in the family, is now gone. Gordie is destabilised by the loss of support and becomes increasingly disillusioned about his own beliefs. This is where Chris steps in. Some of the most endearing and intimate moments in the film are shared between Gordie and Chris when they reveal their problems to each other and grow together. River Phoenix delivers a fantastic performance as Chris, yelling at Gordie for not believing in himself, “It’s like God gave you something, man. All those stories you can make up. And He said, ‘this is what we got for you kid, try not to lose it.’ But kids lose everything unless there’s someone there to look out for them.” He becomes the nurturing and supportive figure that Gordie lost and Gordie becomes what Chris never had, someone who tells him that he is better than his family and that he can make it into college. The obsession with the dead body is just an ornamental addition to this moving account of how important true friendship really is.
Reiner creates an interesting interface between fantasy and reality, always subverting the grand narrative of an adventure with the underwhelming reality of ordinary life. Teddy keeps pretending he is a soldier just like his father, adorned with dog tags and all, but he never really achieves the glory he wants. Gordy acknowledges this distinction in the junkyard scene where the boys think of the owner’s dog Chopper as a mythological beast who chomps on testicles. The dog turns out to be a cute golden retriever and Gordie reflects, “Chopper was my first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality.” Reiner also chooses to subvert what are supposed to be moments of childhood innocence by making the boys engage in very intellectual discussions about Micky Mouse Club House with Teddy adding his insightful commentary, “Have you been watching the Mickey Mouse club lately? I think Annette’s tits are getting bigger.” Scatological humour is the product of Gordie’s brilliant story about “Lardass” and whatever semblance of social propriety that the boys had is dismantled by the retrospective knowledge of Gordie who recalls, “Finding new and preferably disgusting ways to degrade a friend’s mother was always held in high regard.”
Even though it can be criticized for its juvenile sense of humour, that is exactly what makes Stand By Me what it is, an honest depiction of four young boys who aren’t afraid to say what they want to. They are some of the greatest critics of socially determined sensibilities, always questioning their hypocrisies. Almost 35 years have passed since the film came out but it has been embedded permanently in the consciousness of popular culture. The boys do find the body but that’s not what the story was about. It was about Gordie’s journey and his reconciliation with the loss of his brother. He sits and cries because he never shed a tear during his brother’s funeral. The journey is circular, both literally and metaphorically, because the boys make it back to Castle Rock and move on with their lives while the narrative returns to the present where Gordie is an established writer with two children of his own. Although they lose contact with Teddy and Vern, Gordy and Chris remain best friends and Chris proves his worth by studying hard and becoming a lawyer. He blatantly rejects the idea that individuals are products of their environments but his story ends the same way that all stories end, albeit more abruptly. He is the lawyer who was stabbed in the throat, the man in the news report from the beginning of the film. It is through the wonderful recreation of memory that one defies death and remembers their loved ones, something that the entire film captured perfectly.
Reiner’s beautiful film ends with one of the most universally tragic questions. Gordie types on his computer,
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”