Stand By Me at 35

On August 22, 1986, Stand By Me went wide after a limited release per-screen-average of $15,174. It would go on to earn more than $50 million on a $7.5 million budget and become one of the most beloved coming-of-age movies ever made.

Based on the Stephen King novella The Body, from his 1982 collection Different Seasons, Stand By Me is one of King’s favorite adaptations of his work and for good reason: the film is perfectly rendered from start to finish. Director Rob Reiner assembled a cast of wonderful young actors then worked with them for two weeks prior to filming to ensure a believable camaraderie. The four – Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell – became friends in real life, and their chemistry jumped off the screen. The dazzling screenplay earned Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans a well-deserved Oscar nomination (it was the film’s only nod, unfortunately). At the time, Reiner had only two feature films under his belt – mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap and romantic comedy The Sure Thing – but directed Stand By Me with the self-assurance of a veteran filmmaker.

The autobiographical story (Wheaton’s Gordie, our King stand-in, loves to tell stories and will grow up to be a writer) is a simple one – four friends set out to find the body of Ray Brower, a missing boy about their age. Along the way, they encounter leeches and a junkyard dog named Chopper, dodge a train and learn some valuable life lessons. Gordie’s older brother Denny (an uncredited John Cusack), clearly their parents’ favorite, has recently died; Gordie is not only navigating his own grief over losing his beloved brother, but coming to terms with the fact that his parents will never love him the way they loved Denny.

Gordie’s friends – best friend Chris Chambers (Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Feldman) and Vern Tessio (O’Connell) – have their own problems at home, and the four of them find comfort and a sense of family with each other. One of the best sequences in the film is their post-dinner campfire conversation, which starts with Gordie telling his friends a story he’d been working on (about the revenge of a bullied kid named Davey Hogan) and features discussions ranging from “What is Goofy?” to “Annette’s tits”.

During a quieter moment later on, Chris laments his status as the “bad kid” and fears he’ll never outlive that reputation. River Phoenix is bonkers good in this scene, tapping into some ancient emotion that a 14-year-old shouldn’t be capable of.

The boys find Brower’s body, leading to Gordie’s heartbreaking revelation that his parents would rather he had died than Denny, as well as a showdown with the town bully Ace Merrill (a deliciously malevolent Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang. Now it’s Wheaton’s time to shine, as Gordie, experiencing equal parts anger and grief, finally stands up to Ace (“Suck my fat one, you cheap dimestore hood.”)

As the film ends, we learn from our narrator (Richard Dreyfuss, credited as “The Writer”, plays the older version of Gordie) that Gordie and Chris had drifted apart from Teddy and Vern, and that Chris had recently died trying to break up a fight in a fast food line. The close-up on The Writer’s computer screen shows us the final line of the story he’s writing: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Thirty-five years later, Stand By Me remains a timeless ode to the aches and pains of adolescence and the friends who help us through them. The film took on an added emotional resonance with the death of River Phoenix in 1993; the shot of Chris disappearing from Gordie’s view gives me shivers every time.

Fun facts:

  • According to Wikipedia, the filmmaker originally attached to the project was Adrian Lyne, director of Flashdance and 9½ Weeks. I for one am thrilled that Lyne’s version doesn’t exist.
  • The movie generated renewed interest in Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”, and the 1961 song became a top ten hit again, peaking at #9 in December 1986.
  • Though the film was only nominated for the one Oscar, it received Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and Reiner was nominated for a Directors Guild Award as well (he lost to eventual Oscar winner Oliver Stone).
  • River Phoenix auditioned for the role of Gordie, and Ethan Hawke auditioned for the role of Chris, which ultimately went to Phoenix.
  • Stand By Me was a clear influence on Stranger Things 1; aside from the obvious visual references, the Duffers had the young actors auditioning for the series read passages from the Stand By Me script.

You can stream Stand By Me on Amazon and the complete soundtrack on Spotify.

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