9. Stand by Me (1986)

Director: Rob Reiner

Starring: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss

October 24, 1993. That was the day I saw “Stand by Me” for the very first time. Now, almost twenty years later, you’d think it would be impossible to remember so specific a date for such a common event. Being a fan of TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” I had been alerted to the existence of “Stand by Me” thanks to my desire to see actor Wil Wheaton playing a role other than that of 24th Century child genius Wesley Crusher. Watching the film, I was impressed not only with Wheaton, but the other young actors as well: Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman, and the immensely talented River Phoenix. Sadly, it is because of Phoenix that I am able to recall the date, as he would die only seven days later at the age of 23.

Although the setting of “Stand by Me” (late 1950’s Oregon) might as well be a foreign environment to me, this doesn’t mean the characters themselves cannot be in some way relatable. For myself, the most relatable would be the main character, Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton). Although I do not share in common his parental issues, nor the loss of his brother Denny (John Cusack), it is Gordie’s passion for storytelling that draws me in. At least some of that has carried over into my adulthood, as it does also for the grown-up Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss). As a writer, I can say with certainty that it is impossible to predict what life-altering events will come to serve as inspiration. Much easier is picking out which of your memories is the strongest, and what new discoveries you have made about both the event and of yourself upon reflection.

Something else I have not had to deal with as of yet in my life is the death of a childhood friend. I know, as time moves on, it is inevitable, and that I will likely learn of it from reading the obituary page one fateful morning. This is the very thing that prompts Gordie to write about the time that he and three of his peers traveled on foot for two days to look for a missing kid their age, rumored to have been killed by a passing train. There is no denying that this is a very morbid and potentially dangerous reason to go anywhere without telling your parents. But beyond the question of risk vs. safety, there lies the potential for personal growth. Each kid faces his own demons. The body is ultimately found, but what the boys go through to get there, and the bond that they shared, is of greater significance. Gordie understands this, and it only serves to fuel his need to share his story.

It is the characters’ individual stories of pain and uncertainty which I find to be the most interesting part of “Stand by Me.” Verne (Jerry O’Connell) has been searching for nine months for a jar full of pennies which he buried under the porch of his parents’ house, for which he has lost the map he had drawn. Teddy Duchamp has a love/hate relationship with his WWII veteran father that only he can truly understand, but any feeling person can still feel sorry for him. Gordie has it in his mind that his father simply hates him, and that this has become more evident following his brother’s death. But it’s Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) who just breaks your heart.

Chris has the unfortunate stigma of being a smart kid born into the wrong family. He’s the younger brother of one of the more notorious delinquents in the town of Castle Rock. Chris once stole the milk money at school, then realized his mistake and tried to return it. But, due to his family’s reputation, he was taken advantage of by the very teacher to whom he returned the money. She used it to buy a dress she had been wanting for some time, and he got a three-day suspension. This frustrates Chris to the point of tears. He wants to make something of himself, but believes he’ll never get that chance as long as he is stuck in a town where everyone views him as a no-good thief. This scene is a great example of the talent of actor River Phoenix, and also a sad reminder of his absence. Like Brad Renfro and Heath Ledger, River Phoenix could have grown into one of the great actors of his generation had he not succumbed to the drug scene in Hollywood. This is even more sad when you consider that he hated the celebrity status attached to his line of work, yet he felt obligated to be part of it.

There has been a film version for nearly all of Stephen King’s stories over the years, but despite his reputation for being a master of horror, King’s best writings have nothing at all to do with things that go bump in the night. Examples of these include “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and the oft overlooked “Dolores Claiborne” (1995), but the best adaptation of King’s work is “Stand by Me.” It’s one of those movies that, despite featuring pre-teens as its protagonists, continues to become more personally relevant as I get older.

  1. Mary says:

    Thanks for writing about a favorite movie of mine too.

  2. vinnieh says:

    Excellent review of one of my favourite films.

  3. vinnieh says:

    I wrote a review of this on my blog not long ago if you’re interested in reading my thoughts.

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