THE TOP 28: #22, STAND BY ME (1986)
Updated: Feb 9, 2018
Will Wheaton: Gordie Lachance
River Phoenix: Chris Chambers
Corey Feldman: Teddy Duchamp
Jerry O'Connell: Vern Tessio
Kiefer Sutherland: Ace Merrill
Richard Dreyfuss: The Writer
Screenplay by Raynold Gideon & Bruce A. Evans (Based on the novella "The Body" by Stephen King)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Sometimes a film so perfectly captures something it's heartbreaking. STAND BY ME is so spot on in its depiction of that awkward time between childhood and adolescence that my first viewing overwhelmed me. I was a sophomore in college and after catching it at a local cinema, I couldn't sleep. The story of four 12-year old boys venturing into the woods to see the dead body of another local boy instantly tapped into a sense of nostalgia my 19-year old self didn't know I had.
The movie takes place in the summer, which is the most magical time to be a kid. Daylight stretches later, giving the illusion you have mastered time. Adventure is sought around every corner in an effort to fight boredom. Tender-hearted Gordie (Wil Wheaton), his tough but trusted best friend Chris (River Phoenix), wild man Teddy (Corey Feldman), and chubby comic foil Vern (Jerry O'Connell) have entered that bizarre purgatory between being a kid and being an adult. They talk about comic books, best flavors of Pez, and whatever the hell Goofy is supposed to be as easily as they speculate on whether or not Annette Funicello has breasts. The year is 1959 and the specific topics might be dated, but their spirit and purpose are universal. STAND BY ME knows what it means to be 12 more than any movie I can recall. THE SANDLOT comes close, but that film doesn't dive into the dark realities the world offers. STAND BY ME, based on Stephen King novella, explores the harshness of the world pressing harder into the idyllic existence of childhood.
The boys each deal with their own burdens. Gordie still mourns the loss of the older brother he idolized. Chris fights to be seen by the town as just another Chambers hoodlum. Teddy brags openly that his dad fought at D-Day, but that might not be true. Vern struggles to be taken seriously by the other boys. The movie works on many levels, but is never stronger than when it shows the boys at their most vulnerable. When Chris confides in Gordie that he wishes he could just "go where nobody knows me" and then breaks down, my heart aches that a boy should desire such a thing. Yet, I know it's something many of us have wrestled with.
The boys collectively deal with a bully named Ace (Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang and his spectre looms over them just as much as the cadaver for which they search. King's stories often deal with monsters and Ace is very much the monster of this story. He is the manifestation of all four of their fears and they ultimately have to face him.
Fans of this movie know it simply at the mention of its memorable set pieces. Leeches. The railroad tracks. The campfire. The Lard Ass story. The discovery of the body. The final confrontation with Ace and his gang. It all leads to a final monologue delivered by Richard Dreyfuss as an adult Gordie that reveals the tragic fate of the other three boys. The last lines of the movie still echo in my thoughts.
Rob Reiner directed this movie early in his career. He handles the material deftly and never missteps with tone. Moments of sweet comedy blend with scenes of heartache or terror. The child actors deliver remarkable performances, especially River Phoenix, who was about to become a breakout star. He died far too young.
STAND BY ME was a mild hit when it opened in 1986, but endures because of the way it speaks across generations. I've shown this movie to my kids and they love it and identify with it. It's a more mature film than something like THE GOONIES and its DNA can be found in one of the biggest TV hits around these days, STRANGER THINGS.
Adult Gordie's final line punctuates the film's central idea succinctly. "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?"