Stand by Me is based on a short novella The Body written by Stephen King. And the scariest thing about it is how accurate it is. Rob Reiner, who was more known for comedies directed it. Yet, there are many elements of drama and the conversations and actions of the characters seem real. It seems like an odd combination, but it works and has remained one of the most memorable coming-of-age comedy-dramas of all time.
The movie starts with Richard Dreyfus playing Gordon Lachance peering over a newspaper that is reporting on the death of a friend of his who was fatally stabbed. He sits in a car but two children pass by him on bikes and he begins to recall an incident when he was 12 in his hometown of Castle Rock, Ore. over Labor Day Weekend in 1959. Gordon, or Gordie as he is known by is played by Wil Wheaton at this age. The switch from New England in King’s work to the Pacific Northwest works because both are considered rural areas of working blue-collar people in the post-World War II era.
Gordie is the typical American boy, buying comic books and spending his last few days of summer hanging out in a treehouse with his friends, Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman). They’re playing cards, smoking cigarettes and using such language that will clearly get them a “hiding” around their parents. Unlike Gordie, Chris and Teddy are from bad homes. Chris’s older brother, Richard (Bradley Gregg) goes by the name “Eyeball” and hangs around with Ace Merrill (Keifer Sutherland) the leader of a gang of hoods in their late teens/early 20s. As said in the voice-over narration by Dreyfus, most people expected Chris to turn out like everyone in his family, including Chris.
Teddy’s father was a WWII veteran who stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, but came home to become an abusive alcoholic burning one of Teddy’s ears on the stove. Since then, his father has been in a mental hospital where he’s known around town as a “loony.” Another friend, Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) comes to the treehouse in a hurry. Vern is slightly obese and doesn’t have much common sense or book smart as he is often the butt of jokes even by Gordie.
Vern has one question for them – do they want to see a dead body. He says that he just came from his house where he was underneath the porch and overheard his older brother, Billy (Casey Siemaszko) and his friend, Charlie Hogan (Gary Riley), talking about finding a dead body off a county road where the train tracks run out of town. It’s believed to be the body of Ray Brower (Kent W. Luttrell), a young teenager who’s been missing for a few days. Billy and Charlie are part of Ace’s gang but they can’t notify the police because they had stolen a car to drive and afraid the police are going to know why they were out in that secluded area. Billy even says placing an anonymous call won’t work because he’s seen it traced on TV shows.
Initially they get the idea to lie to their parents that they’re going to camp out but they’ll actually following the train tracks out of town. Teddy knows the area as he used to go fishing there with his father. They think they’ll be heroes even if it gets them in trouble with their parents, but Chris says “It’s worth a hiding.” The innocence they feel thinking finding a dead body shows you how niave they are.
Even though he comes from a good home, Gordie says he’s become the “Invisible Kid” that summer as his older brother, Denny (John Cusack) was killed in a car accident a few months earlier. The lost of a child can affect any parent but Denny was the more favored child, because he was good at athletics and school, as well as liked around town. During a flashback, we see that their parents played by Marshall Bell and Francis Lee McCain, often were more interested in what Denny was doing at school. Even when Denny tries to turn the attention to a story Gordie wrote, it doesn’t work. But Denny and Gordie has a special bond in which Denny let Gordie have his New York Yankee’s ball cap.
Gordie’s father especially doesn’t like him hanging out with Chris, who got in trouble for stealing some lunch money. Gordie will be beginning junior high when school starts in a few days as Chris, Teddy and Vern will be put in the classes for the low-income and lesser educated students. This leads to a heart-to-heart between Chris and Gordie over why Gordie needs to focus more on college prepatory classes rather than wanting to be in shop class with them.
Along the journey, the four boys deal with their own personal problems. Chris tells Gordie that he did still the money but he felt bad and turned it back in. Despite this, the teacher pocketed the money and then turned him in. He feels that no matter what, people will continue to associate him with his family. Chris wants to get out of the town and do something more with his life.
Early in the movie, they cross paths with Ace and Eyeball while passing by a pool hall where Ace takes the Yankee cap off Gordie’s head and gives it to Eyeball. He then threatens to put a lit cigarette in Chris’ eye when he insults Ace while Eyeball happily watches. Later at the junkyard where they refill their canteens, they come in contact with the owner who criticizes Teddy’s father, causing him to break down. Gordie can’t understand why Teddy still defends his father who was abusive. Even though he says his father wasn’t physically abusive, you can tell Gordie is suffering from the same emotional abuse Teddy is used to.
While they’ve been gleefully walking along the tracks, singing songs and clowning around, Gordie reminds them that they shouldn’t be too joyful. They are on their way to discover the dead body of someone around their same age range. After getting some meat at a nearby grocery store, they build a campfire and cook it and joke around.
Gordie then tells them a story about a fictional pie-eating contest in their hometown where a young man, David Hogan (Andy Lindberg) is very obese and is known as “Lardass.” He competes with some other people in town and is ridiculed by children and adults in the crowd who suddenly start to cheer for him when it appears he’s going to win. But what they don’t know is Lardass has drunk castor oil and consumed a raw egg prior to going on stage to make him sick. With eating so fast, he suddenly gets sick and vomits all over an older contestant who made him trip going on stage. This leads to everyone on stage and in the audience getting sick into a “Barforama.”
Lardass represents all four. He’s obese like Vern and the subject of jokes. He’s got a disability like Teddy. He’s sensitive and resolved like Gordie. And like Chris, he’s being pre-judged by everone and unable to do any different.
Reiner along with writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon mix the humor with touching moments. There’s a scene where they find themselves in a pond that’s deeper than they expected when they tried to cross only to find themselves covered in leeches. But it’s the innocence of their conversations as they question whether Goofy is a dog or not and how sexy Annette Funnicello is on The Mickey Mouse Club. They’re at that age in which they’re beginng to discover girls but they still do silly things like seeing how far they can spit water out of their mouth.
When they discover Ray’s body, it’s less of the great moment they thought. Instead they find themselves stunned. It’s believed Ray was picking berries and got hit by a train that came by. In earlier scene, Vern and Gordie run from a train while trying to cross a bridge. Gordie has a breakdown at the scene of Ray”s death as he’s still grieving the loss of Denny as well as his father hating him. The previous night he had a dream where his father told him he should have been the one to die.
Chris comforts Gordie but it’s interrupted when Ace and his gang arrive claiming they they’re going to take the body. This leads to a showdown between Ace and Chris in which Ace threatens to kill Chris which at this time, Eyeball gets concerned. Gordie manages to pull out a semi-automatic handgun that Chris brought along that belongs to his father and tells Ace he will shoot him if they don’t leave. Ace and his gang leave and they all leave Ray’s body at the location.
In a voice-over, Gordie says they walked back home endlessly arriving back just after sunrise on Labor Day. They decided to call the police and leave an anonymous tip. Gordie says returning the town felt different and smaller. All four part ways going on to their homes. It’s revealed that Gordie and Chris took the college prepatory classes which meant they saw less and less of Teddy and Vern while they were in school.
Vern got married, raised a family and became a forklift operator. Teddy couldn’t get into the Army or any armed services because of his ear. But he’s had run-ins with the law and even been in jail. He had to go on to work odd jobs. Chris managed to leave Castle Rock and go on to become a lawyer but he was killed by stabbing when a fight broke out in front of him at a restaurant. Gordie says he and Chris hadn’t seen each other in about 10 years.
The movie is about growing up and realizing some friends you have as a child mean more to you than friends you have as an adult. It’s almost as if once the societies we live in start labeling us, we get along a lot more with people. The adults of Castle Rock and especially the world want to keep us divided. That’s why Lardass’ revenge is so satisfying. The mayor is the emcee and one of the contestants is the school principal. In many ways, they are responsible and suffer the humiliation. Gordie’s story is about them getting their revenge on the town too.
But more important, the movie shows the importance of young men expressing their feelings. Teddy’s father obviously had post-traumatic stress disorder but at the time, it was frowned upon and Teddy became just another victim of the abuse. Chris doesn’t want to be the delinguent his brother is. Neither Chris, Gordie nor Teddy are afraid of crying in front of each other.
This movie really showcases Phoenix as a young, talented actor. And within a decade of this movie, he would be dead from an accidental drug overdose on Halloween night in 1993. Feldman, himself, showcases how talented an actor he could have been if his career hadn’t been affected by substance abuse along with overbearing parents who wanted him to act to help pay the bills. Wheaton, himself, has since come out and talked about how he was forced into acting at a young age. He said things with his real life were similar to his character on screen And despite playing the stereotypical overweight child, O’Connell, himself, accidentally bought cannabis cookies without realizing it and had a breakdown on set reportedly that it shut down production for two days.
It’s a sad movie when you look at the lives of the young actors and what might have been if things were different and better. I don’t know if times have changed in Hollywood. Emotional abuse by narcissistic parents is something people pay more attention to now. Feldman has for many years spoken about how he was sexually abused as a young teen and advocated for young child actors. Phoenix himself was part of the infamous Children of God cult and is reported to have been sexually assaulted as a young child. With problems like that not being taken seriously in the 1980s, no wonder they both turned to drugs and alcohol to escape the pain.
It’s no surprise the movie ends with Gordie as an adult at first ignoring his son and friend while working on a novel but then getting up from his computer to take them swimming when his son reminds him. The final scene of Gordie playing a little with the boys before they get in the car is optimistic that Gordie didn’t turn into the type of parents he had.
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