Thirty years after the coming-of-age drama was made, Taylor Glenn wonders how it’s maturing.
What and why: Stand by Me was one of my favourite films when I was young. I’m sure I’ve seen it about 30 times. I’d watch it over and over, late at night with my favourite cousin, and we’d analyse the relationships between the characters (“Gordie and Chris are the real friends; they’re more mature”) and talk about how dreamy River Phoenix was.
Then I’d admit I found Kiefer Sutherland sexy even though he was a psychopath, and she’d agree. We’d get tense during the train running scene although we knew it ended OK. We’d pretend to like the Lard Ass barfing sequence even though it disturbed us and we’d wince at the notorious leeches scene. We’d cry at the end.
I discovered it was based on a short story called The Body in Different Seasons by Stephen King, my favourite author at the time, and read it one afternoon, trying to decide if I liked the original story or the film better. I chose the film, even though it felt like a betrayal to King. I even had a conversation about it with my dad, who surprised me by saying the coarse language “was appropriate because that’s how kids talk.” I nodded but tried not to think of the line “suck my fat one” as we shared our moment.
Fittingly, Stand by Me had punctuated that delicate, curious time between childhood and adolescence for me.
The classic coming-of-age drama has now turned 30, just to remind us how old we all are. The actors went on to mirror something of the characters they played: River Phoenix died tragically at 23, despite a career which was soaring. Corey Feldman, like his character Teddy, had experienced abuse as a child and had a tumultuous period struggling with addiction and anger, although is now recovered and has a career in music. Wil Wheaton has described himself as relating to Gordie in that he too was “shy and awkward” and has since focused heavily on writing despite other acting roles. And Jerry O’Connell went on to star in Piranha 3D.
OK, so they don’t all exactly fit, but still, O’Connell is married with kids, like his character Vern… you get the picture. It’s a testament to Rob Reiner’s casting, which reportedly took months, that the actors filled the shoes of the characters so accurately.
“This is an era where children were allowed to be on their own, where you don’t need to set up a dystopian Hunger Games scenario to imagine them in their own world, battling it out.”
Rated or dated: I promised myself that to write this piece, I’d watch the film again with a critical eye, rather than just a nostalgic one. For sure, there are dated elements which you’d find in any 80s flick: Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the lead character Gordie Lachance as an adult writer looking back, types the story out awkwardly on a Commodore at the end of the film.
And 1959, when the story takes place (that may as well be colonial times!) lends itself to dialogue and styles which sometimes feel just slightly forced. The acting is, at times, uneven – River Phoenix tends to act the other three off the screen, if I’m being brutally honest – and certain emotionally charged scenes are stronger than others.
At times, Richard Dreyfuss’ narrative also seems an unnecessary device to explain the story and its meaning – and interestingly, Reiner apparently nearly recast him halfway through the film, maybe because he realised he had blue eyes and Wil Wheaton has brown eyes.
The Lard Ass sequence is still deeply disturbing, although I suppose that was the point: I do remember it working a bit better in the novella with Stephen King’s vivid description rather than the visuals. It does, however, set up one of my favourite Vern quotes of the film: “Did Lard Ass have to pay to get into the contest?” “No Vern. They just let him in.” “Oh! Good story.” I still use that line in life when someone throws out a non sequitur.
Despite these few fussy details, the film still resonates hugely. In particular, the themes of mortality and grief, and the isolation which Gordie (and for that matter, his misfit friends) all feel is palpable. These are lonely characters who desperately need each other, and are staring down the barrel of growing up with a mix of determination and fear. The flashbacks and nightmares where we delve deeper into Gordie’s grief and sense of rejection by his parents are powerful and frightening, and make his drive to see the boy’s dead body feel very real.
There is also a real sense of desperation in the world Rob Reiner creates – a one-horse rural town with no attentive adults has led to teenagers left to form cruel, if laughable, gangs. Kiefer Sutherland’s antisocial Ace still makes you feel unsettled and unsafe. This sets up a sense that the younger ones are next in line and trying to take control of their destinies, but with the odds greatly stacked against them. This is also an era where children were allowed to be on their own, where you don’t need to set up a dystopian Hunger Games scenario to imagine them in their own world, battling it out. The real world is isolating and threatening enough.
There’s an interesting lack of female characters in the film – but this only mirrors the world of the boys, who, as Dreyfuss quips, “haven’t discovered girls yet.” Gordie’s mother is vacant and crippled with her own grief, and we also learn she is controlled and silenced by Gordie’s father. It’s a time when ‘boys will be boys’ was the mantra but refreshingly, the boys in Stand by Me represent the full range of emotions rather than a male stereotype: they laugh, they get angry, they get scared, they cry, they embrace – they are human.
So in the end, does Stand by Me hold up? Just as its lead character is telling a story through his own nostalgia and memory, the film takes me right back to the time when I watched it over and over and connected with its complex, young characters, and its impact remains.
It’s absolutely RATED – pinky swear.
Taylor Glenn: A Billion Days of Parenthood is at Just the Tonic at the Caves from 4-28 (not 15) August at 9:20 PM. Book ahead or pay what you want at the venue.
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Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.