Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Kiefer Sutherland star in an adventure movie about two rival gangs trying to find a dead body, ending in a violent confrontation.
You probably just imagined something very different than what Stand By Me really is. These actors starred in this movie when they were in between their child and teenage years, and though there are some high-stakes moments, it is really a film about the amazing bond between four 12-year-olds and where it took them.
This movie was made by Rob Reiner 1986 about kids in 1959, but it reminded me of friends I had in 2014, and ones my father had in the 1970’s, showing how timeless a movie really can be.
It is told in flashback by older Gordie (Will Wheaton as a child), as played by Richard Dreyfuss. He recalls a summer with his three best friends, all of whom from households that are unhealthy to some extent. The four boys--around age twelve-- overhear a gang of older teenage bad-boys talking about a young boy who has disappeared and been presumed dead. The four boys embark on a journey together after overhearing a lead to where the dead boy might be.
The majority of the film is just those four boys trudging through the forest and over train tracks to get to him. Though it might sound boring, it is anything but. Perhaps it’s how intensely vulgar and funny the boys are together or how heartbreaking their honesty, but you can’t help but be entertained and touched by how great these kids are. It’s no surprise that all four would go on to be well known as adult actors.
One thing I appreciated is that the film is not trying too hard to be anything that it’s not. It verges on melodrama, but then descends into the childish (especially in a funny and gross story-telling scene revolving around “Lard-Ass Hogan” that I will avoid describing). It is also able to balance humor and charm by not trying to hard.
The defining moments are the scenes that remind us that they are really just kids, and the ones where they impress us in a StrangerThings-esque way. In one of two train based scenes, for example, they make a risky decision to walk across train tracks with no shoulder to sidestep onto. Predictably, a train comes and they try to make a break for it. Vern, an overweight kid, is too terrified to run. This intense moment where even the toughest of kids doesn’t know what to do reminds us that each of these kids is just that; a kid. But in a later moment, they prove themselves as a pack of very capable seventh-graders.
Watching a lot of movies can give you doubts or even harsh feelings about child actors. It’s a tough piece of work to star in a movie and some kids are not up to the task. As the older Gordie says “you never have as great friends as you do when you’re twelve years old.” In the same respect, you can’t play great friends better than a group of real twelve-year-olds.
Stand by Me really showed off child acting skills I haven’t seen since the family watched Haley Joel Osment’s performance in the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense. Coincidentally when you put those two films together, you get something along the lines of Stranger Things, a show that would coronate a new generation of young performers.
But I digress. The way that the four kids at the center of this picture act so uniquely and honestly resonates far better than the acting of many reputable movie stars.
In conclusion, this film didn’t tackle any major issues or break any ground in the special effects department, but it was sure entertaining, physically beautiful and bittersweet. Not only that, but it showed the true abilities of so many young actors who later be well-known as adult stars.
Dad responds: I really appreciate your reflections on what kid actors can do, as well as how this film touches on immortal topics, such as the bond between kids at a certain age and how those strong feelings continue into adulthood, even when the kids you were tight with are no longer together (or even friends).
While I definitely appreciated the acting chops of these young’ns, I will say that, having seen the movie when it first came out, the dialog didn’t stand the test of time for me. While that didn’t diminish the bonds of friendship at the center of the picture, I think the script was not as tight as the actors performing it. That said, it was good seeing (and having you see) that kids were able to put together exciting times in an era before cell phones (or even TVs in every house).