By Brian E. Wilson
After offering to write this review of Rob Reiner’s nostalgic Stephen King adaptation, set in 1959, I felt a sudden wave of nostalgia myself. Memories of catching this funny, profane, surprisingly moving gem in August 1986 came flooding back to me. The movie, about four misfit 12-year-olds (all with distant and/or neglectful fathers) forming a temporary bond as they travel by foot to see their first real dead body (an older boy struck by a train), set itself apart that summer. I ended up watching it several times at the theater over the next few months, but would not see it again until I recently revisited the movie. Although I was heading into my senior year of college at the time of its release, Stand by Me still spoke to me as I struggled with the notion of wanting to be a writer (just like the film’s lead character Gordie, beautifully played by Wil Wheaton as a boy, and Richard Dreyfuss as a reminiscing adult called simply “The Writer”).
Taut, economically directed by Reiner (I forgot that the film is only 88 minutes long), the film works on so many levels: as a rollicking yet tear-jerking vehicle for its young stars, as a sensitive if troubling coming of age story, and as a successful big screen treatment of a Stephen King novella called “The Body.” The modestly budgeted film not only became one of my favorite movies of 1986, but a sizable hit, and one that helped Ben E. King’s gorgeous title song (co-written by the singer, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller) return to the Billboard Top Ten one more time. (Do yourself a favor, and look at the wonderful video with an effervescent Ben E. King doing some classic dance moves with stars Wheaton and River Phoenix on YouTube.) Side note: the trivia hound in me must note that the movie is set in 1959, but the tune didn’t come out until 1961–but hey, why quibble, when a song is this good and so appropriate thematically?
Before I revisited the movie (for the first time in around 28 years), I asked myself “will this film hold up?” I am happy to report that it does.
The then-unlikely combination of Reiner and King proves to be surprisingly effective, with both men offering something highly unexpected of them at the time. In 1986, most people still lovingly dubbed Reiner “Meathead” in honor of his All in the Family character. Although critics took notice of his hilarious (and now much-celebrated) rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and the charming and modest John Cusack vehicle The Sure Thing (1985), Stand by Me gave Reiner (mostly known for comedy) the chance to try something new, more dramatic, even though the film offers plenty of laughs, too. At times the film veers into Ordinary People territory, with young Gordie haunted by the death of his older brother (played in flashbacks by a magnetic Cusack) and the subsequent emotional neglect of his father (Matthew Bell). Other moments movingly convey extreme adolescent angst and anger, although laying on the tears a little too thick at times.
The film does an impressive job capturing the dangerous world of boyhood, showing the kids smoking, playing with guns, and dodging trains. An older teenage gang, called the Cobras, play Chicken with oncoming trucks and go around bashing in mailboxes. Reiner tackles the tricky material with finesse, striking (with only a few missteps) the right balance between humor and heartbreak, vulgarity and poignancy. He masterfully directs the four young actors (the aforementioned Wheaton, the legendary late Phoenix as the misunderstood Chris, an amusing Jerry O’ Connell as worrywart Vern, and a never better Corey Feldman as the military-loving Teddy). The strength of the film is the way they interact, antagonizing each other with politically incorrect putdowns and “your mama” jokes, roughhousing, and then making up. Much credit should be given to the Academy Award nominated screenplay by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans (although some were offended by the film’s salty language; Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, for example, called it wrong for its time period). Still, it’s Reiner who captured lightning in a bottle with these performances. Reiner would earn much acclaim for his direction of Stand by Me, with DGA, Golden Globe, and Independent Spirit Award nominations coming his way. No Oscar nomination though, but that didn’t matter: the film helped cement his reputation as a respected film director.
Reiner’s direction of the scene where the boys walk on the tracks over an extended bridge even though it means certain death if a train comes might be the best set piece of his career. Thanks to Robert Leighton’s editing and Thomas del Ruth’s camera work, the suspense mounts as the lads decide to chance it. POV shots through the slats show how high up they are. Long shots capture how far they have to go to make it to the other side. We see Gordie touch the tracks to see if they vibrate. The scared out of his wits Vern crawls on the tracks, a look of complete terror on his face. Of course when they are halfway across, we hear the sound of an oncoming train. All hell breaks loose. It’s truly effective.
Also, Reiner and his team must be applauded for how economical this film is. It does not waste a single moment. Take the opening sequence. Set in the present day, we see Richard Dreyfuss’ “The Writer” sitting in his pulled over vehicle, looking devastated. The camera shows us the newspaper sitting to his side on the front seat saying that a man named Chris Chambers has been killed. Two boys riding by on bikes snap “The Writer” out of his reverie. Seeing these two young kids and the newspaper article transport him back to those fateful days in 1959 when he and Chris, along with their aforementioned pals, agree to locate the dead body. And we see his memories unfold. The film has given us all we need to know before starting its main story. It’s a great, memorable opening.
Reiner would enjoy a wildly successful post-Stand by Me run that would include The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989), another King adaptation Misery (1990), and A Few Good Men (1992), before stumbling with the Roger Ebert-lambasted North (1994). He has done fine films since that misfire, but nothing has quite matched that rather amazing string of successes. He remains the only director to guide an actor appearing in a Stephen King movie to an actual Oscar win (Kathy Bates in Misery). In a perfect world, River Phoenix would have also been nominated (he wasn’t) and won (although in all seriousness, no one would have beaten the long-overdue Michael Caine that year for Hannah and Her Sisters for Best Supporting Actor).
Meanwhile, in the mid-80s, it was easy to feel a little Stephen Kinged out at the multiplex. For every aesthetically impressive King horror show (Carrie, The Dead Zone, the TV movie Salem’s Lot, and–sorry, Mr. King, I like it–The Shining), there was at least one that didn’t quite work (Firestarter, Maximum Overdrive, Cujo, Children of the Corn). Stand by Me emerged as a different kind of Stephen King movie, based on a change of pace novella called “The Body” appearing in the 1982 collection Different Seasons (which also includes “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” which became the extremely well-regarded 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, and the story “Apt Pupil” which was turned into a 1998 chiller starring Sir Ian McKellan and the late Brad Renfro).
Although the comedy-drama sounds like it could be a horror movie (boys searching for a dead body) and there are moments of intensity (thanks mostly to the aforementioned Cobras, led by Kiefer Sutherland as a holy terror named Ace, who love bullying and humiliating our heroes), the story has a gentle, earnest quality to it. Yes, we get body horror (leeches!), cruelty (we learn that Teddy’s father tried to burn his ear off), a disturbing nightmare scene (Gordie’s father telling him that he should have been the one who died, not his brother), and some mild shock cuts (a Cobra giving his buddy a tattoo–with a razor blade–OUCH!). Yet when things get a little too intense, a song on the soundtrack smooths out the shocks: Buddy Holly’s lovely “Everyday,” the Chordettes’ “Lollipop,” the Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me,” among others. Jack Nitzsche’s music score quiets things down, tugs at our heartstrings, and gives us a lovely orchestral version of the titular song. (Here’s hoping that Broadway doesn’t try and turn it into a musical though.) The film also treats us to Teddy comically singing the theme to “Have Gun with Travel,” and it oddly gets stuck in your head for days.
Many movies about childhood and adolescence deal with death. Forbidden Games (1952) and Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) quickly come to mind. A year after Stand by Me was released, Tim Hunter’s bizarre The River’s Edge (see Sam Juliano’s excellent review at #81 on this countdown) would take a similar story (teens dealing with a dead body) and give it a far more nihilistic edge. And decades later Daniel Patrick Carbone would tackle similar issues with his stunning 2013 arthouse gem Hide Your Smiling Faces. What sets Stand by Me apart is its unabashed heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality. The boys know that this summertime journey to find the body will be their last big adventure together. As Chris reminds Gordie, they will be going their separate ways once junior high starts, with Gordie heading to “college courses” and the other three taking remedial classes. Sometimes the movie has them already reflecting on the experience before it’s even over, with Vern at one point saying that these truly are the best days of their lives. Dreyfuss’ narration, overexplaining, jumps in to tell us that Vern was indeed right. However, we accept this aspect of the movie because we know Dreyfuss’ “Writer” character is looking back with sadness and fondness…and a nostalgic filter. Sometimes the tears seem a little forced. Like when a junkyard owner (an effective cameo from Bruce Kirby) chides Teddy about his mentally ill father, Teddy sobs and sobs and sobs as a result. Still, I find myself tearing up every time, mostly because Corey Feldman brings real pain to his Teddy role.
Although I have emphasized the movie’s drama in this review, I must say I love the film’s humor the most. The sequence where Gordie thinks he’s going to be attacked by the most vicious and legendary junkyard dog in history manages to always trick me; my heart always races. Like Gordie, the audience expects Cujo, but ends up outrunning a dog sweeter than Lassie. Reiner wisely does not show us the adorable pooch until Gordie has safely jumped over the fence. And then there are the boys’ amusingly serious conversations about such topics as what kind of animal the Disney character Goofy is, Annette Funicello on the Mickey Mouse Club, and whether Superman can beat up Mighty Mouse. Vern and Teddy’s conversation about this latter topic is effectively intercut with Gordie and Chris serenely discussing more mature issues.
And then of course, there’s the infamous pie eating sequence. Yes, the pie eating sequence almost out-Monty Pythons the disgustingly funny restaurant scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). The kids convince Gordie to tell a story (but fittingly not one of his horror stories), and he rewards them with a gross-out tale, acted out in a disgusting manner only 12-year-old boys can imagine. A town bullies an overweight young man, and in turn, he exacts revenge on them. However, this isn’t Stephen King’s Carrie where the blood flows in a horrifying fashion. For those who have seen the movie, you know what does flow. For those who haven’t, I will spare you the details because you might be eating while you read this.
There’s a very effective moment at the end of this sequence when Gordie triumphantly finishes his gross-out tale, expecting his pals to love it. They mostly do but then Teddy asks “and then what happened?” Gordie is flummoxed. That’s it, he says, and although Chris and Vern offer encouragement, Teddy cannot hide his disappointment, devastating Gordie. And this is why I think Stand by Me will always remain one of the very best King adaptations (Misery, also about storytelling and writing, being another). I can imagine a young Stephen King sitting with his pals in front of a camp fire, telling them stories he hope would wow them. It feels personal.
Chris encourages the self-doubting Gordie to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer. He takes on the role as a surrogate older brother, or even father, to the self-doubting Gordie. And this is where the casting of River Phoenix becomes so important and essential. Phoenix brings a compelling and convincing maturity to his role. He plays a good kid in a “bad” family. No one expects any good to come from him…except Gordie. And Phoenix shows you that Chris could go either way: making something of himself (and Gordie convinces him to do so we later learn), or heading down the delinquent path. River Phoenix brings a soulfulness to his performance that gets under your skin. He’s an excellent ensemble player, but he walks away with the movie without intentionally overshadowing the others.
Phoenix would later impress in The Mosquito Coast (1986), his Academy Award nominated turn in Running on Empty (1988), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Dogfight (1991), and many others. Quite simply, I love him as an actor, and I will always cherish Stand by Me because it will be the film that introduced me to him. The film promised a great future for this quietly intense young man, who played each scene as if living it. And for a while, the promise was fulfilled. When a friend called me on October 31, 1993, she told me she had bad news. Federico Fellini had died. That news struck me hard. But then she told me that she had more bad news. River had died. I seriously don’t remember the rest of the phone call. I didn’t know him personally of course, but I was working on a screenplay idea with him in mind, so yes, his passing really hurt. Now I think of all the great performances we lost. Watching Stand by Me again, it overwhelmed me when Gordie talks of Chris’ death. Still, I am thankful that we still have the movies he did make; his talent preserved forever.
Wil Wheaton also does a beautiful job in the movie. Looking properly meek at first, but coming in his own towards the end of the film when angers takes hold of him. After the leech scene, when the boys talk of giving up, Wheaton’s fierce “I’M NOT GOING BACK” takes your breath away. The power shifts and he suddenly becomes the group’s leader; the journey to find the body will not end until he says so. And then when he faces down Sutherland’s creepy Ace, Wheaton seriously looks like he can do some damage. The actor would later appear on Star Trek: The Next Generation and currently makes fun of his stalled career on the hit show The Big Bang Theory. I always enjoy seeing him and feel that he has a lot of untapped talent.
Continuing this “Where Are They Now?” portion of the review. Jerry O’Connell, so funny as the pint-sized and perpetually nervous Vern, has become a tall, strapping, lean gent, a formidable stage actor (I saw him in the Broadway play Seminar starring Alan Rickman). He keeps working steadily on TV and in film. Corey Feldman came into Stand by Me with some hits under his belt (Gremlins, The Goonies). His subsequent career has been bumpy to say the least, with reality shows and self-parodies and such, but Stand by Me proves that he really can knock it out of the park. It should be noted, of course, that Kiefer Sutherland has gone on to enjoy a successful career, as has John Cusack (who would appear with Reiner in the Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway).
The movie ends with one of my favorite final lines of all time. In a silent moment, the expressive Richard Dreyfuss (who was enjoying a nice comeback in the late ’80s) finishes his story, surely dedicated to Chris, the boy who believed in his gifts. “The Writer” types on his computer: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, who does?”
Stepping away from his computer, he goes outside and joins his son and his son’s friend for some fun. We see that he has become a good father. A good man. A writer. Ben E. King’s wistful, elegant song fills the air. The credits roll. And you feel compelled to watch the movie again.