In Focus: Stand By Me (1986)

By Helen Cox

For those of us who have already seen the 1986 masterpiece Stand By Me there is one image that immediately comes to mind: four boys running clumsily along a railway bridge swiftly pursued by a steam train that shows no sign of stopping. If you haven’t seen Stand By Me let me make it clear right here right now that you are missing out. Not just because it stars a small band of some of the more talented 80s hopefuls, namely River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Wil Weaton and Jerry O Connell, but because it is a thoroughly engaging character-driven narrative that effortlessly captures a very pure child-like sense of adventure.

Based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age classic charts the story of four young boys on both a physical and personal journey to recover a dead body that is rumoured to be lying in a nearby wood. Hailing from the small, fictional town of Castle Rock the uncertainty and isolation of the wilderness proves to be quite a test for the boys (they get leeches in places you really don’t want leeches) but as the story progresses they discover things about themselves and about each other that brings them closer together as friends – that’s surely got to be worth having in your pants.

Although all four boys are undoubtedly important to the story Wil Weaton’s awkwardly creative Gordie is our protagonist and narrator and it is his character that provides the film with one if its more moving sub-plots. Not long before our story opens Gordie’s older brother Denny, a young and spritely John Cusack, was killed in a car accident. Gordie’s parents are still struggling to cope with their loss and a heartbroken Gordie is convinced in his heart of hearts that his parents wish it was him that had died rather than their beloved first-born. The death of Gordie’s brother is what drives him to seek out the dead body in the woods. Unlike the mere morbid curiosity of his friends Gordie is driven by a desire to confront death, face to face, in order to overcome his fear of it.

The relationships are played out seamlessly in this film and Jerry O Connell, River Phoenix and Corey Feldman are thoroughly convincing respectively as the chubby coward, Vern, the sparky vandal, Chris, and the foul-mouthed and feisty Freddy. Perhaps one of the key reasons Stand By Me still has an impact after all these years is that the actors lives reflected those of their characters. That’s not to say that the exact same things happened to both the actors and the characters in the film but that for both the actors and the characters life didn’t turn out, long-term, as they might have hoped it would. Stand By Me is gripping because we are not only taken in by the story and the characters but by the young actors themselves. Through their characters we see them and there’s a distinct sadness at the end of the film when it is clear that after the summer of 1959 the boys went their separate ways and not necessarily for the better.

Wil Weaton arguably never topped his stint in Stand By Me. He secured a couple of gigs in early 90s in films like Toy Soldiers (1991) and The Liars’ Club (1993) but thereafter was mostly known for his TV work. Jerry O Connell had some brushes with bigger breaks such as his stint as Sydney’s boyfriend in Scream 2 (1997) but for some reason nobody really latched onto him. He was last seen playing a pornographer in Piranha 3D (2010). Corey Feldman slipped into relative obscurity turning his back on Hollywood and only notably surfacing for reality TV show “The Two Coreys” a show he shared with his friend and contemporary the late Corey Haim. Most tragically, after going on to play some fairly significant roles River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993 directly mirroring the fate of his character in Stand By Me.

There are few films that handle the loss of childhood as sensitively and as successfully as Stand By Me. If you’re in the market for a well-acted, well-written and well-directed yarn with plenty of laughs along the way then Stand By Me is definitely a perfect punt for that spare Sunday afternoon.

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