Sometimes, when you’re famous for indulging in a particular genre, people tend to overlook just how good you really are at telling a story – Stephen King, for example, is a particularly cracking storyteller who can create living breathing worlds with the clack of a typewriter but you really feel that this obvious fact gets lost every now and then between all the telekinetic teens, rabid saint bernards, polo mallet wielding caretakers and child eating clowns.
Thank christ for Rob Reiner then, because back in 1986, he peeled open the pages of anthology novel, Different Seasons (the same tome that houses Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption), and brought the coming if age tale know then as The Body to the screen as a timely reminder of exactly just how much King really is – well, the king.
Writer Gordie Lachance reminisces back to the days of 1959 and he was a twelve year old boy living in the shadow of his older brother’s untimely death and the only solice he has is his stories and his three friends he grew up with in the town of Castle Rock, Maine. The entire town was, itself, going about its business under the cloud of the whereabouts of a missing child by the name of Ray Brower, but Gordie, Chris Chambers – his best friend from the wrong side of the tracks; bespectacled and abused wild card Teddy Duchamp and overweight dope Vern Tessio manage to find out the apparent whereabouts of his body when one of their number overhears a conversation between a gang of local hoodlums who had stumbled upon it earlier but had said shit-all about it to the local authorities. Vowing to take the long trek to find him to subsequently become heroes, Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern pack some sleeping bags and a gun (Chris’ family really are a peach) and due to some textbook 50’s parenting, head off into the the expected glory they think finding the smoldering body of a 12-year-old will undoubtedly bring.
However, their journey eventually becomes something of a rite of passage as each of the boys unwittingly lays parts of their childhood along the side of the road as the trip forces them to confronts their fears and ultimately become men. Gordie has to come to terms with the fact that since his brother’s death has become all but invisible to his grieving parents, Teddy confronts the fact that even though he worships his father (“He stormed the beach at Normandy!”), the man nearly burned his ear off on a stove and is currently in a home for the mentally ill, while Chris realises that his family’s bad name will most likely mean he’ll never amount to anything, anywhere. Aside from all this introspective agony, the quartet will also have to deal with the external problems of guard dog whose attack methods is the stuff of town legend (“Sic balls, Chopper!”), a poorly timed crossing of a railway bridge, an attack of leeches and, worst of all, the attention of a local gang led by the vaguely psychotic Ace Merrill.
It would be easy to distill Stand By Me as merely It without the clown (as opposed to saying that It is Stand By Me with a clown – which I guess is equally valid), or even a more hardcore version of The Wonder Years with a flick knife brandishing Kiefer Sutherland and a squirm inducing case of a curious leech latching on to Will Weaton’s genitals after a splash in a river, but surely director Rob Reiner’s crowning achievement is that Stand By Me somehow makes you ache and pine for the 50’s even if you wasn’t even alive back then. While most movies try to force nostalgia upon you by relentlessly attacking your brain with numerous songs, comics, tv shows and endless trips to the drive in, Stand By Me takes a slightly different path, and while a lot of those previous methods are full in effect (the soundtrack is positively plump with classic jams), where the movie really scores is in it’s depiction of the admittedly bizarre habits, superstitions and numerous rites that are infused in children in their formative years.
Regardless of what decade you grew up in, there’s some much recognizable behavior here in the way the quartet engage with one another, that’s it’s impossible not to see something of your own childhood lodged within the 50’s trappings. Being it finding endless ways to verbally degrade each others mothers or each other (“Did your mother have any kids that lived?” is still a withering putdown of God-level proportions), or debating whether Mighty Mouse could beat up Superman with all the seriousness of a conversation about existence itself (“Mighty Mouse is a cartoon, Superman is a real guy!”), it’s all so painfully familiar.
Director Reiner, who not only gave us the iconic This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and a vastly different attempt at realising King with Misery, nails virtually every aspect of the movie, right down to deploying Richard Dreyfuss’ distinctive vocal chords for adult Gordie’s narration – he even shifts into a weird, fantasy tone for the showstopping timeout where a young Lachance fires off his storytelling skills with the overblown tale of David Hogan and a pie eating contest that ends with farcical and vomit smeared results.
The cast perform magnificently with Weaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell all doing superlative work with the four leads as the rigours of this adventure draws the childhood denial out of each of them to let the cruel realities of life in. Be it Teddy’s implosion when a cranky scrap owner nails him with some home truths about his father or Chris heartbreakingly confessing that he wishes his friend will make it in life, even if that means that he himself is left behind (how do you like dem apples, Good Will Hunting?), the boy are all pitch perfect – something that’s given an extra level of poignancy thanks to not only the quiet gut punch of the final coda, but also from the actual, unfortunate events that befell some of its cast in later years.
As perfect as cinematic nostalgia gets, Stand By Me is a high point on the resume of everyone involved and is a timely advertisement that one of America’s greatest authors doesn’t need to rely on a prison setting whenever he feels the need to set the horror stuff to the side every now and then and mine the depths of the human condition or the yearning for friends gone by…
Do I believe this? Buddy, I stand by it.