Thursday 8 December 2011

Movie Review: Stand By Me (1986)

A nostalgic ode to the innocence of childhood friendships based on a Stephen King novella, Stand By Me is a trip down memory lane enlivened by a willing young cast.

It's 1959 in rural Oregon, and the small community of Castle Rock is buzzing with rumours about a missing teenager. Four 12-year-old friends stumble onto crucial information: the teenager is dead, his body lying by the rail tracks, a two-day walk away. Street-smart Chris (River Phoenix); intellectual Gordie (Wil Wheaton); eccentric Teddy (Corey Feldman) and overweight Vern (Jerry O'Connell) decide to embark on an unlikely trek to find the body and gain the resultant perception of fame.

The dead body is a classic McGuffin and this is of course a journey of self-discovery, with the boys finding themselves and awakening to each other as human beings. The trip along the rail tracks represents the boys' struggle to overcome the travails of childhood and learn the responsibilities of adulthood, while engraving into their psyche a memory of a life-time.

Gordie is haunted and traumatized by the death of his football star older brother Denny (John Cusack). Gordie is sure that his parents would have preferred him to to be dead instead. Gordie is also carrying the hopes of his friends: he is the only one among them expected to go to college and achieve anything in life. Chris is cocky and self-confident, but has already decided on his destiny: he comes from a tough family, and a challenging future is all he sees ahead, although his self-awareness provides him with a remarkably sharp perspective on the world.

Teddy is physically and emotionally scarred: his abusive dad held his ear to a stove, and Teddy hides behind a facade of eccentric bravado. Vern is surprisingly timid and pushed deeper into his shell the more he is bullied about his weight.

Rob Reiner extracts mature and honest performances from his young cast, and keeps most of Stand By Me focused on the kids. The film is very much a perspective on life at age 12, and older teenagers are the dark forces: Kiefer Sutherland is at his snarliest leading a gang of thugs racing to beat Gordie and his friends to the site of the dead body. There are hardly any adults in the movie, with Gordie's parents portrayed as detached and cold hearted, while Richard Dreyfuss mails in a cameo as the grown-up Gordie narrating the story. The soundtrack of classic 1950s tracks increases the wistful sentimentality of the simple story.

Being a pre-teen may be all about simplifying life's complexities down to a tussle among friends; Stand By Me recognizes that at age 12, friendships are the essence of life.

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