Thursday, August 13, 2015

Stand By Me

Upon the release of STAND BY ME in 1986, Stephen King declared it the best adaptation of anything he'd written.  The author had been frustrated by lackluster filmizations of Firestarter, Cujo, and was very vocal of his disappointment with Kubrick's take on The Shining.  STAND BY ME, based on the short story "The Body" was the first King non-horror/suspense adaptation, tellingly enough.  It became an immediate favorite of mine. When I revisited it a few months ago the warm feelings remained.

More resonant? But of course; the older one gets the more heart tugging such a story - the recollection of a middle aged writer - becomes.  I've found, much to my surprise, that those youthful, sometimes listless days are often something to be remembered fondly.  Even the bad stuff.  Some say that unpleasant memories fade, but no, they're still vivid, and part of it.  Part of a long ago mosiac that was oh so boring back when but has transformed into some sort of mystical remembrance.  Starring your family, friends, enemies, and those with whom you endlessly lined up for every damn thing you did in elementary school.

STAND BY ME follows four twelve year olds in the 1950s who are about to enter the uncertain world of junior high school.  I remember my own uneasiness, that summer between sixth and seventh grade, wondering how it would be to change classes, meet a whole world of other kids from different neighborhoods, now no longer part of a small group that had more or less become family.  I was also quite worried that I would get my ass kicked on a daily basis.

Gordon (Wil Wheaton) is the gawky, introspective type who enjoys writing stories.  He is haunted by the recent death of his loving older brother.  Chris (River Phoenix) is the tough kid with a less than loving home life.  Teddy (Corey Feldman) yearns to become, like his father, a military man some day.  But dad suffers from mental disorders that led him to injure his son.  Vern (Jerry O'Connell) is the tubby, put upon on brat who always needs rescuing.   Each are close friends and plan a weekend outing - their last before junior high - into the woods to investigate the possibility of finding the corpse of one of their peers. The adult Gordon (Richard Dreyfuss), typing a memoir in the present day, narrates.

Many recognizable preteen behaviors and rites of passage play during the journey: cigarettes, swearing, venturing into murky waters without worrying what might be down there, smarting off to bigger kids without considering the consequences, complaining about your parents, ogling female T.V. stars, etc. The trip is filled with bickering and adventure, as well as a lot of soul baring and crying.   Every moment in director Rob Reiner's drama is letter perfect, sometimes achingly familiar, even if you didn't grow up in the era of Wagon Train and Eisenhower.  To lighten the heaviness, we're treated to a visualization of one of Gordon's stories as he tells it around a campfire to his buds. It's a sequence I doubt anyone will ever forget.

The young cast is excellent.  Knowing that Phoenix, highly effective here, would leave this world prematurely makes his character especially poignant. Wheaton is solid and believable.  Feldman would never have a better part.   O'Connell is hilarious and will be unrecognizable to those who only know him from his adult roles.  Kiefer Sutherland quietly, effectively nails the bully he is given to portray, the kind of jerk who steals your baseball cap and holds it way over your head and laughs, or maybe even threatens your life.

The final moments, as the narrator explains the paths each boy will eventually take, really hit hard.  Realistic. They re-frame the entire movie, casting it in almost an ethereal glow of yearning.  Every seemingly insignificant little thing. Moments to be savored, but not realized as they are happening.  Youth may indeed be wasted on the young.

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