Stand By Me isn’t just a catchy song by Ben E. King. It is also a magnificent movie directed by Rob Reiner in 1986 inspired by a story written by Stephen King. And this is the movie I’m writing about now, so… here it is! The premise that I want to make is that I have seen this film, without exaggerating, at least a dozen times, many of them using an old VHS and the rest with the DVD that was one of the first to become part of my collection. So if you’re looking for an objective review, forget it, I just love this movie!
Here’s the plot, for the few (I hope) of you who don’t know it. It’s the summer of 1959 and we are in Castle Rock, Oregon (I told you it was a Stephen King story). Four 12 years-old friends are spending the last few days together before their school careers will diverge due to different choices (dictated by different possibilities). They are Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and the overweight Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell), practically a standard formation of preadolescent friends of the movies of those years (see The Goonies , for example), now copied everywhere for this absurd Eighties’ nostalgia (think about Stranger Things, to name just one product copying movies like Stand by me and E.T. The Extraterrestrial by Steven Spielberg). The group of friends overhears where the body of Ray Brower is, a boy who has been missing for three days, and all together they decide to embark on a journey to recover it. The trip by foot along the railroad tracks will turn into a real adventure from which all four will emerge changed and grown up, as it’s tradition in a coming of age film like this one.
How to begin to enumerate all the splendid elements of this movie? First of all, the protagonists: not only are the four actors impeccably directed by Reiner, but their characterization is incredible. Gordie is treated badly by his parents who preferred his older brother who died prematurely in a tragic accident. Chris is a smart guy but he’s part of a shattered family: his future as a slacker or, worse, a criminal, seems to have been already written since birth. Teddy’s father, a Second World War veteran, is in a mental asylum after having disfigured his son. Vern is an insecure kid with an older brother in Ace’s band (Ace is the bully played by Kiefer Sutherland), the main antagonist who also wants to be credited as the official discoverer of the missing kid’s body.
An adult Gordie tells us not only the story of the discovery of the corpse, but also who his friends were and what happened to them after that fateful summer of 1959. The movie is in fact narrated in flashback by Gordie which is, we soon find out, a famous writer (did I mention that the original story is by Stephen King?) and this is one of the few films where, in my opinion, the narrator serves a purpose. Usually I find it redundant and annoying, but here it’s impeccable in all its interventions and strengthens the story allowing to go deeper into the personal relationships of the four friends beyond what’s shown on screen, which already works wonderfully.
All the adventures experienced in the journey to the body of Ray Brower, (the leeches, the dog of the old junk seller, the encounter with the band of Ace, and the escape from the train on the bridge) strengthen the friendships but, at the same time, make the kids grow (especially Gordie and Chris) which is what begins to pose an end to the friendships themselves. There is so much melancholy in this story, even if accompanied by lots of fun moments (think of the story of Davie Hogan!)! The real strength is that everything sounds realistic and natural. Every dialogue is exceptional, every situation is well-constructed, the story develops with an incredible rhythm which is unbelievable if, come to think of it, it’s only a walk in a forest. But that walk is actually a journey towards becoming adults, a search for self-confidence, an attempt to shake off the images that the rest of the world has already sewn on to the four kids without them having been able to build one of their own. This attempt is successful in the case of Gordie (who, thanks to Chris, will continue to pursue his passion for telling stories) and Chris (who will be able to study, which only makes the final revelation of the narrator even more sad), while Teddy and Vern won’t be able to escape from the oppressive small town of Castle Rock.
This film is so powerful, only writing about it gives me goose bumps! A lot of credit should be given to Stephen King for having written such an interesting story, but Rob Reiner must be recognized as having a remarkable talent for having made such a jewel out of a small story. In fact, the director would demonstrate that he could do well with material from the US writer a few years afterwards with the movie adaptation of Misery (1990).
What can I say more? The soundtrack by Jack Nitzsche (who also collaborated with Neil Young in his career) is wonderful and the song Stand By Me used on the finale is just the icing on the cake; the cinematography is exceptional; the editing, the direction… there’s nothing to criticize in this film! But after all I told you right away that I couldn’t be objective, right? Ciao!