“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, childhood classic Stand By Me still holds a special place in many film fans’ hearts.
Beautifully adapted by Rob Reiner from a little-known Stephen King novella (drawn from the same collection that also gave us The Shawshank Redemption), it’s a movie that’s entertaining, touching and deeply evocative all at once.
Revolving around four close friends who decide to abandon their stifling small town for a few days, and head off in search of a missing boy’s body, its tale of early adolescent friendship feels poignantly authentic to this day.
The group’s tongue-in-cheek teasing. The heartfelt solidarity in the face of trouble. And, of course, the hurt insults and arguments that ensue when tempers fray. It reminds everyone of their own mis-spent youth. It really rings true.
A hell of a journey
It doesn’t hurt that Reiner’s saga is frequently funny, and full of enjoyable scenes that skirt the boundaries of edge-of-the-seat suspense and exhilarating mischief. The junk yard scramble, the race against the train, and the encounter with the leeches have a ring of gleeful chaos that is as nerve-wracking as it is delightful.
By the time the boys reach their goal, we really do feel like we’ve been on a hell of a journey with them.
Few movies carry such nostalgic weight to those born between the ’70s and ’90s, yet it’s interesting to note that the film itself is an exercise in nostalgia. Its events take place in the long, hot American summer of 1959, while the eponymous title song – made famous by Ben E King – hit the charts way back in 1961.
The movie’s wistfulness is complex though.
You might argue it yearns back to a more ‘innocent time’: kids going off to explore the woods and countryside, embarking on adventures, before the tangled web of modern technology made childhood even more complicated.
And yet it is no sugar-coated fairytale. Stand By Me’s story is thick with social injustice, violent bullies, and a sense of ever-present danger that, while thrilling, regularly threatens its protagonists with serious harm.
The central boys are all struggling with tangible problems that make them multi-layered and sympathetic.
Gordie is grief-stricken after the death of his kindly big brother, and feels like he is living in the shadow of him. Vern is mocked for being fat, and is constantly afraid of everything. Teddy, who was physically abused as a young child, has serious anger issues.
And then there’s Chris, played quite superbly by River Phoenix, who is tainted by the reputation of his rough family – so much so that a teacher will even go so far as to steal money, and blame it on him, knowing the town will all unite in presumptive contempt.
His sobbing breakdown, later in the movie, remains a powerful highlight.
This emotional attachment to the main characters has us really rooting for them, and by the time Chris and Gordie win out in their tense showdown with Ace’s gang, we want to punch the air with delight.
That said, the ending is fittingly bittersweet. Our boys have grown, and learned a lot about themselves and each other, but they are also on the brink of a major change in their lives. One that will propel them into adulthood, and varying degrees of fortune.
Influence and legacy
The closing voice-over tells of drifting apart, of success and failure, and of one tragic incident that draws a sorrowful feeling under everything we’ve just seen.
But it seems, once again, true to life.
Reiner, who already had This Is Spinal Tap under his belt, would go on to notch up further beloved classics such as The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and a second glowingly received King adaptation, Misery, as part of an extraordinary eight-year run. Between 1984 and 1992, he created a body of almost uniquely enduring work.
Three decades on, this particular movie’s influence and legacy remains.
Acclaimed Netflix series Stranger Things is currently drawing on the wave of affection many feel for ’80s King and ensuing adaptations – especially the adolescent struggles, obsessions and brotherly friendships channeled in Stand By Me.
Because, let’s be honest: none of us had friends later on like the ones when we were twelve.