At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Stand By Me

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Coming-of-Age Drama/ Stars: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, Casey Siemaszko, John Cusack, Marshall Bell, Frances Lee McCain, Gary Riley, Bradley Gregg, Jason Oliver, Bruce Kirby, William Bronder, Andy Lindberg, Scott Beach, Madeleine Swift, Kent Luttrell, and Popeye the Dog/Runtime: 89 minutes

I think it should be said that while iconic writer Stephen King is one who is mostly attached to the contributions he has penned for the realm of Horror, I also feel that to just associate him with that one group and dismiss all his other works entirely would be to completely miss just how masterful of a writer period to say nothing of how gifted the man is at seemingly effortlessly conjuring up fully fleshed out and realistic locales and characters with phenomenal skill and ease. Not only that, but by and large a lot of King’s tales also manage to be wonderful proof that, above anything else, it’s human beings and their various choices and pathos which are the key element to writing a truly great tale though a close second would easily be that you should always give the plot of your stories a much more immersive meaning beyond the superficialities on the surface. Indeed be it epic in terms of scope and length sagas like IT, The Green Mile, or The Stand or tales that might be shorter in length yet just as riveting whilst also being fairly grounded in reality like one known as The Body, King has been able to give a reader tales that have realistic people at the heart of them who aid the reader in engaging in what is going on whilst also inviting them on whatever journey King has conjured up for them to go on in the hope that it will help the reader learn the same lesson that King wants the characters to learn. Yet of all the adaptations done of King’s work over the years there is perhaps one that has always distinguished itself to me. That would of course being 1986’s Rob Reiner helmed coming-of-age drama Stand By Me which is an adaptation of the previously mentioned short story from King known as “The Body”. Indeed here is a movie that in lesser hands could have been downright terrible and clichéd to the hilt. Yet in the hands of this director and this cast, we get instead a potent and powerful analysis on the power of friendship, and what it means to find the meaning of life when you are in the midst of looking for no less than potential death that is not only one of the finest of its genre, but also one of the finest films of the decade period.

The plot is as follows: Taking us back to the long gone ago era of time known as the 1950s, Stand By Me gets its tale underway as we see that the biggest news spreading through a tiny town known as Castle Rock is the mysterious disappearing act of a young man by the name of Ray Brower. Indeed not only are the authorities absolutely befuddled as to just where in the world the lad is, but they aren’t even sure if the kid is still among the living or not. However, a kid in town named Vern Tessio has just overheard his older brother talking with a friend about it and apparently it would seem that Ray was tragically hit by a train and killed while in the midst of a berry-picking trip outside Castle Rock. To that end, we see Vern quickly go tell his trinity of pals Teddy Duchamp, Chris Chambers, and Gordie Lachance at their treehouse hangout spot and so our 4 friends decide to head out to try and locate Brower’s body and bring it back to town in the hope that doing so will make them heroes in the eyes of the town. Thus, the quartet conjure up a story that they know will placate their respective parental units and from there set out on their odyssey. Of course we soon see that this particular excursion is one which will prove a wee bit more taxing than they had initially imagined. Not because of how physically draining it is, but rather due to the surprising appearance of an aspect of real life that they had not expected would be joining them. As a result, what started out as a selfish journey to find fame and glory, however fleeting, will turn into a thought-provoking analysis not only on the power of friendship, but just what the meaning of life really truly is.

Now when looking at this from a ground-level point of view, this movie may seem to be a very low-key adventure movie with a few tiny action components placed throughout the runtime including being chased by both a vicious dog and a vicious train. Yet when looking at it more closely, we see that this movie is actually much more in the vein of a character study and, perhaps more crucially, a tale about what life is all about from the parts that seem the most trivial to the parts that hit the hardest that even during the wonderful time known as “childhood” can stay with us for a really long time after. Indeed as we see in the movie there are moments where the main quartet find themselves pondering such serious questions as who would win in a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman as well as if Goofy is a dog or not as they embark on their journey in a way that feels like they are trying to avoid the inevitable fallout from what the discovery of Ray Brower’s possibly dead body will teach them about who they are. Indeed the 2 main characters, to say nothing of the 2 who invest the most personally in terms of going on the trip, of Gordie and Chris come to see this quest as a chance to unwaveringly examine who they are as people and what they want out of life in an atmosphere that only gets clearer the closer they get to their journey’s objective. In that respect, Ray Brower is almost this movie’s hero in a way since from what has happened to him springs forth a deep and immersive comprehension of life that will come to change the quartet of boys at the heart of this story in a way that nothing had before and not that much would after the fact either.

Ultimately, there are a pair of integral components which aid this movie immensely in its quest to show the meaning of life through the filter of death. The first of these components is the fact that the movie handles its narrative in a way that is both full of integrity as well as quite profoundly and the other is in the incredibly well done work by the cast of this film who are all top-flight in their respective parts. In regards to the former, I can safely say that film helmer Rob Reiner’s work here has resulted in a movie that is equal parts poetic and yet also timely and soulful from both a visual and narrative structure perspective. Indeed the simplistic nature of the narrative mixed with the gravity of the concepts at work in it combine to provide this movie with a distinct style that manages to showcase both who everyone is as well as the core of this odyssey so well that you can be forgiven for the fact that the main narrative hook for the film involves looking for a possibly dead body. Yet even through the fun exterior, the actually fairly inspiring narrative, and overwhelming amount of heart, there’s always a degree of tragedy and of lives somehow smeared by various injustices in the world. Indeed ties of friendship and brotherhood prove to be powerful no matter what comes these boys’ way and it really is quite beautiful to see the main characters try to help each other be the best they can be no matter what the world throws at them with Chris inspiring Gordie to pursue his writing dreams and Gordie inspiring Chris to be better than how the world sees him. Yet even with this inspirational things in play, there is also a low-key vibe of sadness, anxiety, regret, and (obviously) death, but to be fair these are all key components of living as well. What makes this movie great though is how the quartet at the heart of this film learn to appreciate and make the most of life no matter if times are good or if times are not so good. Indeed it’s that integrity about how life functions and how these characters discover this through their various misadventures on this one soul-stirring odyssey that is what helps make this film one of the best slices of cinematic pie revolving around this particular topic.

As for the second component that makes this movie work, that would be the gallery of top-flight performances that help to make this movie feel a bit more complete than it would have otherwise. Yet, it’s more about how realistic the performances are as well as the chemistry shared by the quartet of main actors rather than how good the performances are on a technical level that make this movie as good as it is. Indeed there is a seemingly genuine vibe that these 4 boys have been friends their whole lives up to that point and they have such a deep comprehension of themselves and the others that it really permits the movie’s more immersive concepts to take hold as the viewer becomes more aware of these kids and their various lives and aspirations. Indeed amongst the quartet, River Phoenix may be the clear standout, but we also get wonderful work from Wil Wheaton who gives his part a much-needed sense of sensitivity and sincerity in a way that really keeps the overall film together as well. We also get wonderful work from both Kiefer Sutherland in a part that really does seem like the role that got him cast as David from The Lost Boys and John Cusack who, despite being seen merely in a collection of flashbacks, really does give a very moving and potent performance. Yet out of everyone, I think the best and most profound character is the one played by Richard Dreyfuss who I’ll just call “The Writer” for reasons I’ll leave for you to discover for yourself. Indeed this is because despite only having about 20 minutes of screen time, this is a character that is the one character that shows us what the boys went through on this respective journey and reflect on the impact it continued to have into one’s adulthood.

All in all I can safely say that Stand By Me is easily one film that I can identify as an iconic adaptation of a short story written by an author who is easily one of the finest and most prolific of the past 5 decades. Indeed a saga about the art of discovering who you are on the inside as well as trying to better comprehend one’s life through an odyssey to find a person who, ironically, is no longer alive, the slice of cinematic pie that is Stand By Me is one that is constructed on a phenomenally well-scripted cast of characters that are then beautifully brought from script to film by a group of performances that, although not perfect by any means, are still wonderful due to a beautiful sense of integrity which goes a long way to making the film’s narrative work on the level that it does. Suffice it to say that, using a phrase this movie and those who have seen it know quite well, Stand By Me is most assuredly by no means a complete and total barf-o-rama. Rather, this is one of the best movies the 80s sought fit to give us and easily one of the best entries in the subgenre of movie magic known as the coming of age drama I have ever had the pleasure of watching. On a scale of 1-5 I give Stand By Me a solid 4 out of 5.