Seasonal Cinema: Summer- Stand By Me
Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is a perfect song. It’s one of my desert island songs. On its surface it’s a simple appeal of love. But between Ben E. King’s aching vocals and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s spare, gorgeous production, it always feels so grand to me. It feels like the end of something. Like someone deeply frightened calling out for help. It’s the one song that captures the feeling of total trust and love of someone else.
It’s the perfect choice for the title of this film.
Stand By Me might be Rob Reiner’s best film. He had a hell of a run in the 1980s. From 1984 though 1989, he made This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally. While the last film on that list hasn’t aged well for me (its view on friendships between men and woman is one of the worst bits of pop philosophy to go mainstream), the first three all have something rare and wonderful in common. They are all great films that also seem to stand alone and, when you watch them, feel nostalgic and yet completely original. This is Spinal Tap was a breakthrough in the mockumentary genre, in being both hysterically funny and yet completely convincing. The Princess Bride is an ode to children’s fantasy and a devilish subversion. It mines the genre for jokes so well that it might be the most quotable film every made, and yet its heart is completely earnest. And Stand By Me is a coming-of-age film that feels like no other. Its characters are not the film’s attempt to encapsulate the adolescent experience. They aren’t metaphors. They are simply four kids trying to find a dead body.
Rob Reiner is a sentimental director, but he has a knack for dramatic pacing and timing. He can make the most of a good script, identifying and amplifying its strengths. The script Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon wrote for Stand By Me is often perfect. Their ear for dialogue, for the sort of competitive vulgarity that 12-year-olds can speak in, is spot on. The performances by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell never falter. The story told here is not a universal one; most people watching it today did not grow up in small-town Oregon in the 1950s. But the feeling of summer ending, of clinging to moments before they get away and you’ll never get them back? That is something anyone who has been 12 in the summer can relate to. It’s a deeply confusing age. The characters in Stand By Me grapple with issues that overwhelm them. Gordie (Wheaton) lost his older brother. Chris (Phoenix) is poor and his family is scorned by the neighbors. Teddy (Feldman) was horrifically abused by his father, who is now in a mental hospital. Verne (O’Connell), bless him, seems to have the most stable family life, but he did lose his jar of pennies.
Reiner, Evans, and Gideon resist the urge to be on the nose about the growing up these characters will do in this movie. They hear that a boy’s dead body is somewhere, a day’s hike away. They want to find the body and be heroes. That contrast between grave seriousness and childlike zeal continually comes up throughout the movie. At one point Chris and Teddy nearly fight after Chris stops Teddy from a dangerous, almost suicidal stunt. Both are grappling with powerful emotions that they can’t easily express, even if they wanted to. Then Chris calls a truce: a low-five. A child’s ritual ends the conflict. For now, at least.
The contrast between childish ritual and the looming feelings of adolescence is a far more elegant way of telling this story than filling it to the brim with metaphor. These characters are still children. Children who are aware that growing up is impending, but they aren’t there yet. They aren’t going to suddenly be “men” by the end of the movie. They’re still going to be children. Watching the film again for the first time since I was a teenager, I was struck by how worried I was about them seeing the dead body. It’s not a coming-of-age moment, but a collective loss of innocence.
I was also more aware of the film’s concessions to commercial expectations. Richard Dreyfuss’s narration is so distracting that at times I wished I could turn it off. The occasional comic insight is dwarfed by how often the narration intrudes on a quiet moment, telling us things we already know, or ruining moments of lovely ambiguity with on the nose nudging.
The gang of teenagers led by Kiefer Sutherland are also unnecessary. They are so comically one-dimensional that their artifice becomes apparent: they exist solely to create a tense standoff at the end, a scene that is completely at odds with the quiet soulfulness of the rest of the movie.
But those are quibbles. Stand By Me is one of those films that expresses a seemingly ineffable feeling; the of desperation of the last few weeks of summer, and the intense loneliness of feeling things without knowing how to talk about them. It’s about the steadfast bonds of young friendship, and all the rituals and rules and confidences that make friendships during childhood take on an importance that is almost inevitably lost with maturity. Bonds are stronger when you are staring into a vast unknown together, and there are few times with more unknowns that your last summer before you’re a teenager.
Stand By Me is one of the finest coming-of-age films, because it never seems to be about growing up. It understands that there is no narrative of growing up when you’re 12. Life comes fast at all times when you’re 12. But damn if it doesn’t happen faster in the summer.