Stand by Me opens with an adult Gordie Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss) reading the newspaper. His childhood friend, an ex-ruffian-turned-attorney, was murdered. Stand by Me is remembered as an adventure yarn combined with a coming-of-age story, but there’s a distinct sense of melancholy and longing to this introduction. The frame of the film is an adult looking back nostalgically at his 1950s childhood, yet the central MacGuffin—a dead body that four kids want to go see—is a symbol that acts in reverse: it represents the desire that children have to seek out and find adulthood, only to be unpleasantly surprised upon finding it.
Forgive my preamble, but I want to contextualize this film as a story of age and the perpetual dissatisfaction it causes. See, Stand by Me was, in many ways, a coming-of-age story for me. I saw it when I was young, probably too young, and I was reminded of that when I read Will’s fantastic article on Batman Begins. While Stand by Me wasn’t my Batman Begins, in that it didn’t awaken in me a love of the more complex aspects of cinema, it did reveal to me the extent to which I could see myself and what was to come in 90 minutes. Although I’m probably mis-remembering my past to fit a convenient narrative, I think of Stand by Me as the first realization that I would grow up, that the world was a lot darker than I realized.
The film introduces these ideas slowly and intelligently, in that the theme is expressed through more than just the dialogue. The most obvious moment is when the boys look at the train track bridge, discussing how it’s a point of no return for their adventure to find a dead body. The road that will take them away from their childhood unrolls before them, no end visible. These children are looking over the bridge to their future, recognizing that it can be crossed in only one direction. The bridge is a transitional space, and a key component of the central theme. I found these moments to be the most interesting, where there’s a brief silence between the four protagonists as they sense the imposing and impending nature of the future. Ironically, the delightful interactions between the kids interested me the least, even though they made up the bulk of my memories of the film before my recent re-viewing.
Gordie’s (Wil Wheaton) attempts to balance fun and his anxieties—of adulthood, family, friends—are what drive the film, and so the scenes smartly oscillate between comedy and drama to reflect Gordie’s experiences. I guess the lighthearted scenes caught my eye when I was a wee lad, and gave me the ability to process the heavier moments. The most telling scene that captures this tonal shift is when the boys swim through a swamp and start horsing around. They realize the waters contain leeches, and run to land to rip them off. Gordie, though, notices that he’s got a leech on his junk. He pulls the leech off with blood on his hands; says, “Holy shit, guys”; and faints.
I thought this was interesting on a thematic level, because while at first it seems like an obvious play on the changes puberty brings, it uses a pivotal moment of maturation usually reserved for women (Carrie is a particularly obvious point of reference). Considering the movie’s simultaneous reveling in and subversion of traditional masculinity—the four boys play poker in a tree house and have a boys club camaraderie, but the antagonist is an archetype of domineering and violent masculinity—I can’t help but wonder if this is an echo of the evolving ways in which we experience and understand our sex and gender. Those types of questions certainly were beyond my ken as a youngster, but the nuances director Rob Reiner exhibits when capturing masculinity were likely useful to a young boy who never saw much appeal of being “manly.”
Stand by Me retains my love because of its (admittedly less-than-subtle) subtext, but it’s still an entertaining adventure story without the nuance. Each plot element is set up early (the gun, the train), and the characters are exceptionally well defined. Gordie is the nerdy introvert; Chris (River Phoenix), the always-in-trouble kid who never had a chance; Teddy (Corey Feldman), the overcompensating goofball; and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), the hopelessly dorky insult magnet. I care about what happens to each of those characters, and their arcs all make the theme have that much more impact. I don’t know if Stand by Me is a great movie, but I know that it’s a great story for capturing the transition from childhood to adulthood. Further, I know the R rating doesn’t reflect who the target audience should be. This is a coming-of-age story that is necessary for those who are actually coming of age, and the content really isn’t more than you’d expect a 12 year old to be familiar with.
I don’t know if I have a major point with this article, and I hope you’ll forgive its hodgepodge nature. But I think we all have those movies that were important to us for how they helped us grow up, and reflecting back on those doesn’t require a rigorous analysis of their effects, but does deserve some of your time and thought. That was my goal with Stand by Me, and I think that the exercise has been useful for me. I recommend revisiting your Stand by Me and seeing how your viewing experience has changed with the years.