One of my dad’s favorite films is the Stephen King-adapted coming-of-age film, 1986’s Stand by Me, but until recently, I’d never seen it. For the longest time, I also had no idea this was a Stephen King-based movie; I’ve never read the story, either. But having now watched it, I can definitely see the Kingness of it. And I think because of that, this film has way more emotional weight than I was anticipating.
The film, directed by Rob Reiner (who also did another King adaptation, Misery, as well as some other notable films, including one of my favorites, A Few Good Men), stars Whil Wheaton as Gordie, River Phoenix as Chris Chambers, Corey Feldman as Teddy, and Jerry O’Connell as Vern.
These four are a ragtag group of friends, who enjoy smoking and playing cards in their treehouse, and ribbing each other.
Gordie is trying to get out from the shadow of his dead brother, Denny. His parents saw him as their golden ticket, essentially, already forgetting about their youngest son. So, when the brother, played by John Cusack, dies in a car crash, forget about it. Forget Denny’s shadow, now Gordie’s suffocating in his ghost.
Chris Chambers is the quintessential white-shirt wearing, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, kid trying to appear older and tougher than he actually is — to conceal the fact that his dad is a drunk and beats on him, and that he believes he’s never getting out of this town to amount to anything (unlike Gordie, who Chris thinks will amount to something).
Teddy is a bit of a loose cannon and unpredictable, which is different than putting on airs of being tough. He tries to play chicken with an oncoming train, for example. He’s dealing with the fact that post-Vietnam, his dad is in the mental institute and people make fun of his dad and him for it. Likely, it seems, his dad suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder before they were identifying it as such.
Vern is the cliché 1980s “fat kid” character. He’s a little dopey and naïve, too. There’s not much really to say about him beyond that.
It’s through Vern that they learn where a missing boy’s body is and that gets them all thinking, if they “discover” the body, they’ll all be local heroes.
However, Vern’s older brother and his gang, including the leader, Ace (played by Kiefer Sutherland), are also out to find the body and get the accolades. They have no compunction about bullying the younger group, either. Or worse …
Like all classic Hollywood films and stories in general, this is a journey story: Our group of kids are trying to get somewhere and run into conflict along the way. And of course, what’s at the end of the journey is what drives the plot forward, but the real story is about these characters, the traumas they are growing up with, the fact of growing up, and their relationship to each other.
Among the best of the moments we get along the journey is Chris telling Gordie that he can fulfill his potential as a writer, despite his dad’s objections and put-downs. I loved Chris talking him up! And not just because Gordie wants to be a writer!
And among the best action sequences is when they cross a bridge over the water and a train comes, leading Gordie and Vern to have to jump into the water. I was simultaneously on the edge-of-my-seat because of how close the train was to them and laughing at Vern.
Of course, the best emotional moment of the whole film is when Gordie finally relents on his emotions and tells Chris that he doesn’t think his dad likes him and I think it’s implied that he wishes he had died instead of Denny. Seeing the missing boy’s body only reinforces all of these feelings of grief and abandonment.
Again, Chris rallies Gordie!
We later learn that Chris did make it out of town and made something of himself, rising about his family’s station in life, and then unfortunately, was stabbed to death in a restaurant trying to break up a fight. That’s tragic, but true to the Chris character.
You don’t see a whole lot of movies anymore in this mold of a group of kids dominating most of the film, free from adults, and allowed to authentically be kids by talking and acting like kids and then having real emotional, heavy scenes interwoven. Lately, that’s changed some with the advent of Stranger Things, but that’s a TV series and I don’t think quite gets to this level, either. It is a good recent example, though, and another Stephen King adaptation, of course.
King does these group dynamics among kids well and the real “monster” is always the other humans they have to deal with, whether their parents or a bully older than them like Ace. Or abstractly, the “monster” of growing up.
It’s a celebration of the last line in the film: “I never had any friends later on life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Those formative years, as messy as they are, as hormone crazy as they are, as volatile and tough as they are, because we are going through all of that with our closest friends, those friendships are unlike anything that can come after usually. That bond is something else entirely.
You’re also caught in that agonizing juxtaposition of still very much being a kid, but desperately wanting to be taken seriously as the person you’re becoming.
Which is why I had a lot of nostalgic fun watching these four boys chase down a dead body in the woods.
I miss those formative years, too. I think Gordie’s right. I’ve never had friends later on life quite like the ones when I was around that age (more like 15 than 12 for me).
One of my fondest memories is similar to what the boys do in the film when sleeping overnight: Having nonsense conversations, like the one food you’d eat for the rest of your life or whatever the case. Those were the best.
Stand by Me is a 1980s film well-worth checking out, if you haven’t seen it. I’d say it’s one of the best King adaptations to date.
The humor was as good as anything in a coming-of-age story, particularly the story of “Lard-Ass,” but the reason the film will stick with me is because of the unexpected emotional characterization manifest by Reiner, screenwriters Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon, and a very game, authentic young cast.