After writing my piece on Stephen King film adaptations, I happened upon one of my favourites, Stand By Me, on TV. The coming-of-age story about four young boys who go in search of a dead body is a film that has stood the test of time. It’s about friendship, strained relationships between fathers and sons, and the confusing, emotional and sometimes turbulent period of adolescence. The four boys played by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell, are superb in their roles as Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern, respectively; so honest and real as youngsters on an adventure who along the way rib each other, sing songs and debate issues of the day, face bullies, outrun a train and open up emotional wounds in questioning who they are.
What I’ve come to appreciate most about the film is how the experience of watching it now as an adult has changed from when I first saw Stand By Me as a young teenager. I think I was 13 or 14 years old when I first saw the film and I remember thinking of it as an adventure film with four aimless boys looking for a little fun and danger to break up the monotony of living in a small town. Watching it as an adult, I can’t help but focus on the characters’ troubled lives and how the film lays bare all the emotions and heartache they’re feeling. Each wrestles with his own demons and each boy confronts his own fears.
Gordie (Wil Wheaton) doesn’t feel good about himself and is acutely aware that his father doesn’t love him. Gordie’s older brother was killed in a car accident and he’s since become the invisible boy at home, haunted by the realization that his parents feel like the wrong son was taken. Chris (River Phoenix) is a tough, cool and fiercely protective friend who comes from a loveless home and fears getting trapped in the small town he’s growing up in for the rest of his life. In one powerful scene, Chris has a breakdown because he thinks he’s worthless and fears he’ll never get the fresh start he so desperately hopes for. In only Phoenix’s second feature film, he showcased impressive vulnerability and an engaging onscreen presence that, when watching it today, is a reminder of his untimely death and the promising career that was cut tragically short.
Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is the youngest of the bunch; a chubby, cowardly and often irritating tag-along that the other boys pick on. Teddy (Corey Feldman) is perhaps the most intriguing of all the boys. He’s a disturbed kid who is physically abused by his mentally unstable father, yet cares so deeply for his dad. Say what you will about Corey Feldman and the career (or lack thereof) that he’s had as an adult (The Surreal Life, Blown Away), no one could have played the tortured Teddy Duchamp with as much raw emotion as he did.
Stand By Me is as effective today as it was when it was released in 1986 because the film is a rich tapestry of common themes that resonate with every generation - human emotion, growing up and self-discovery, the ties that bind friends together, emerging stronger after facing harsh realities, the fondness of bygone years, lessons about life and death and facing one’s own mortality – that will undoubtedly ensure the film’s relevance is never lost.