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Review: Stand By Me (1986)

Stand By Me (1986)

Directed by: Rob Reiner

Premise: Based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King. Set in the summer of 1959, a group of young friends hike outside of their small town to find the corpse of a local teenager who has been struck and killed by a train.

What Works: Stephen King is primarily known as a writer of horror fiction like Carrie, Pet Semetary, and The Shining and many of his works have been adapted into movies of wide ranging quality. The irony is that several of the best film adaptations of King’s work haven’t been horror films at all such as The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stand By Me. But while it isn’t a horror movie per se, Stand By Me is a movie in which horror plays an important but understated role. This is a movie about young men on a quest in which they encounter mortality. The story sets them on a journey with the initial goal of exploiting the death of a teenager for their own fame and fortune. Their two day hike along a railroad track has the facets of a mythological journey; they encounter obstacles and face down challenges and grow personally and as a group. Along the way the boys change and by the time they reach their destination the corpse of this unfortunate teenager comes to mean something else entirely. Stand By Me works so well because of the primary cast. The film is led by Wil Wheaton as the good hearted but soft spoken Gordie. He has already had an encounter with mortality through the tragic death of his older brother and Gordie’s journey is partly about coming to terms with grief. Gordie is matched by Chis, played by River Phoenix. Chris comes from a family of outlaws, drunks, and troublemakers and his character feels the burden of his family name. Corey Feldman plays Teddy, a troubled young man who comes from a violent home, and Jerry O’Connell is Vern, the well-meaning but frequently squeamish member of the group. The rapport between the four boys is extraordinary, especially the bond between Gordie and Chris, and the young actors give performances that are at once mature but also maintain a credible youthfulness. When childhood is depicted in the movies it is often idealized. Hollywood filmmakers generally envision childhood as a happy time that is interrupted by adulthood. Stand By Me takes a slightly different approach. Three of these boys come from homes that are wracked by violence and grief; as a story set in 1959, Stand By Me is even a little subversive. According to popular myth, the postwar years were an idyllic period of American history but by placing the story at this time, the filmmakers suggest that reality is far more complex.

What Doesn’t: Stand By Me is a frame narrative, meaning that the main storyline is bookended by sequences in which the grown up version of Gordie, played by Richard Dreyfuss, recalls the events of the film. As part of the frame structure, Dreyfuss provides narration throughout Stand By Me. The narration is effective in the beginning and the ending but less so throughout the middle of the picture. The narration in the body of Stand By Me is sometimes redundant and explains things that are obvious to the viewer. The narrative of Stand By Me is generally concise but there is one sequence that sticks out. In the middle of their journey the kids settle in for a campfire story that is dramatized on screen. This sequence feels like padding and it does not connect with the rest of the movie. It may be that Stand By Me was a little too perspicuous for a feature film. The movie runs just eighty-nine minutes and so the campfire story serves to inflate the picture to a feature length. The sequence is entertaining enough to be passable but nevertheless it is out of place in the movie.

DVD extras: Commentary tracks, featurettes, music video, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Stand By Me remains one of the best films of director Rob Reiner and one of the best features adapted from the works of Stephen King. This film has some extraordinary performances and an understated profundity that maintains its resonance nearly thirty years after the movie’s original release.  

Episode: #553 (August 2, 2015)