“Stand By Me” is one of director Bob Reiner’s two or three best films. Twenty-five years later, the DVD anniversary edition again shows why: The movie evokes effortlessly and poetically the unique magic of childhood. Inevitably, it also pays tribute to the talent of River Phoenix, the movie’s hero, whose life was cut short.
Stephen King’s autobiographical novella, The Body, was deftly adapted to the screen by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans. The narrative is framed by a long flashback, introduced by its adult hero, Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) who’s now a middle-aged writer: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” This framing device distances the story and characters from the viewers, placing them in a more objectified reality.
Set in the summer of l959, Stand By Me is set in Cattle Rock, a woody town in Oregon. Most of the film was shot in Brownsville, Oregon, which stands in for Castle Rock, Maine. The railroad sequence was filmed in the Mount Shasta area in California.
The narrative centers on one extraordinary weekend in the lives of four friends, a weekend that at once epitomizes the magic of childhood and signals the inevitability of its end.
Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheator) is about to begin a two-day trek into the heartland of the nearby forest. A town of 1281 people, Cattle Rock is for Gordie “the whole world.” Gordie plays a penny card game with his buddies, Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), 13, and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), 12.
For several days, there has been a radio report about a boy who had disappeared while he went hunting for blueberries in the woods. Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) tells them that he overheard an awesome secret: His brother Billy and his friends have stumbled upon the body of the missing boy. They have made a pact not to report their discovery to the authorities because the body was found while they were driving a stolen car. Vern excites his friends so much that they wish to be the first to get credit for the heroic deed, which, in a town like Castle Rock, will make them instant heroes.
Each of the four friends bears a stigma that makes him not only different but also disreputable. Gordie is haunted by the death of his older brother Denny, a former star athlete and the family’s pride. Gordie knows that he would never fill Denny’s shoes. He feels both insecure and inadequate, clinging to his greatest quality, his inclination to tell stories; Gordie is a natural-born writer.
A year older (at this age, every month counts), Chris functions as the group’s instrumental and expressive leader, protecting it from outsiders and regulating tensions among members. However, Chris is also a victim, abused by his alcoholic father. He is convinced that the town would never let him rise above his family’s low status.
Teddy also carries wounds; his stigma derives from wearing thick glasses and suffering from disfigured ear, a result of having an abusive father, who’s a World War II hero. Teddy is willing to dodge trucks and trains in order to gain the love he has never been given at home.
Overweight and scared of his shadow, Vern is an outcast whose desperate ambition is not to be ridiculed (or called “chicken”). To gain acceptance into the group as an insider, he is willing to pass any test of endurance and prove he can overcome any fear.
The film shows how all these individual weaknesses could be–and are– overcome in a group context. How primary relationships, with their social support, intimacy, the “we” feeling, and the protectiveness of the group from the “outside” world, can function as safety valve in counterbalancing personal problems. Only when the friends are really together,” their problems are manageable, if not curable.
The children have to pass a series of rites of passage as both individuals and group members. For example, they test their fate as they attempt a shortcut over a high river-spanning bridge, with a locomotive engine at their heels. It is thus far the scariest and most adventurous moment in their lives.
At night, sitting around a bonfire, they tell stories, which are shown in flashbacks. The fat kid recounts a revenge tale–how he participated in a pie-eating contest at the end of which he vomited over a contestant’s face. Another kid tells how he returned the money he had stolen to his teacher, only to find out that she used it to buy a dress for herself. Gordie still suffers from nightmares about Denny’s funeral, in which his father felt like it should have been him.
The kids are aware of their class and intellectual differences. There is also conflict between them and the older hoodlums, who wear tattoos, drive fast, and knock down mailboxes. Confronting these outsiders, they feel “it ain’t fair, we were the first,” but neither group gets credit for finding the body.
References to popular culture in 1959 abound in the movie. Along with period music, such as the title song, the boys speculate about Annette Funicello’s breasts. At the end of this fateful trip, the quartet’s lives are no longer the same. “We’d only been gone two days,” the narrator says, “but somehow the town seemed different, smaller.”
The trip represents a self-revelatory odyssey for each kid. Two of the four, Teddy and Vern, are destined to stay in Castle Rock, as they say, “we are never going to get out of this town.” And in similar manner to American Graffiti, the viewers are informed through title cards that Teddy tried to get into the army but had bad eyes; Gordie became a successful writer; Chris went to college and became a lawyer but he was stabbed while standing on line in a restaurant.