“We were supposed to be heroes”

A special thanks to Bryan, who has helped shape and sharpen my views on this movie.

**

Initially, the plan was to write something on Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me on the occasion of its 25th anniversary last year. It’s nothing new that posts on this blog take a long time to materialize, but in the case of Stand By Me, it became increasingly hard to find the right words for it as the year progressed. I used the months between March and June to watch it something like six or seven times, and in the process I fell so unconditionally in love with it that I felt like I needed some time and distance from it in order to write about it. During that cooling off period, things happened that made me try to avoid any movie that might make me feel sad or nostalgic. As I shall explain later, Stand By Me does both. So, here we are, way into the movie’s 26th year, and maybe it is finally time to give the movie its due. (This essay contains major spoilers.)

In short, I struggled to formulate my initial thoughts on Stand By Me because I almost loved it too much. A character in Almost Famous – incidentally one of the very few movies that could rival Stand By Me on my all-time-high – talks of “loving a band or a song so much it hurts.” Well, for the last year, that’s pretty much been my experience with Stand By Me. I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is about it that makes it so moving, but maybe that’s the point. My relationship with it has grown from admiration to downright passion – as I’ve gotten to know it better, I have come to appreciate even its imperfections, the little details that meant that I didn’t recognize it as an immediate classic when I first saw it some seven or eight years ago.

Today, those very imperfections are what I love most about it. The story of best friends Gordie (Wil Wheaton) and Chris (River Phoenix), who together with Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) take on a journey to find the body of a missing 12 year-old boy, can be both overly nostalgic and too broad-brushed at times. Richard Dreyfuss’ narration as the older Gordie adds a laconic humor («Finding new and preferably disgusting ways to degrade a friend’s mother was always held in high regard»), but the otherwise extremely well-written and poignant dialogue can get a little  too transparent on some occasions, like when Gordie warns the others that “We’re going to see a dead guy. Maybe this shouldn’t be a party.” I may shake my head a little, just to succumb, in the very next second, to the consistent earnestness that flows through this movie, and which is what gives it its punch, emotionally and as coming-of-age story that is both loyal to and able to transcend its geographically specific space and time.

As in all good movies about people who mature through experience, it’s not the journey itself that’s the point, but how all involved learn something about themselves and the others along the way. The intense loyalty between Gordie and Chris is perhaps best illustrated in a scene where they discuss what will happen when they start junior high in the fall:

Gordie: «Do you think I’m weird?»
Chris: «Definitely»
G: «No, man. Seriously. Am I weird?»
C: «Yeah, but so what? Everybody is weird.»
C: «You ready for school?
G: «Mhm.»
C: «Junior high. You know what that means. By next year we’ll be split up.»
G: «What are you talking about? Why would that happen?»
C: «’Cause it’s not gonna be like grammar school, that’s why. You’ll be takin’ your college courses, and me, Teddy and Vern, we’ll all be in the shop courses with the rest of the retards, making ashtrays and birdhouses.»
C: «You’re gonna meet a lot of new guys. Smart guys.
G: «Meet a lot of pussies is what you mean.»
C: «No, man. Don’t say that. Don’t even think that.»
G: «I’m not going in with a lot of pussies. Forget it.»
C: «Well, then you’re an asshole.»
G: «What’s asshole about wanting to be with your friends?»
C: «It’s asshole if your friends drag you down. You hang with us, you’ll be just be another wise guy with shit for brains.»

(…)

C: «I mean, you could be a real writer someday, Gordie.»
G: «Fuck writing. I don’t wanna be a writer. It’s stupid. It’s a stupid waste of time.»
C: «That’s your dad talking.»
G: «Bullshit!»
C: «Bull true. I know how your dad feels about you. He doesn’t give a shit about you. Denny was the one he cared about, and don’t try to tell me different.»
C: «You’re just a kid, Gordie.»
G: Oh, gee… thanks, Dad!»
C: «I wish the hell I was your dad. You wouldn’t be goin’ around talkin’ about takin’ these stupid shop courses if I was. (…) Kids lose everything unless there’s someone there to look out for them. If your parents are too fucked up to do it, then maybe I should.»

There’s something about how Chris, the son of an abusive father, takes it upon himself to act like a father figure to Gordie, that really breaks my heart every time. He’s convinced that social determinism will hold him down, but he would do anything to help Gordie reach his full potential, or at least to believe in himself enough to go for it. Look at that line again: “I wish the hell I was your dad.” I’ve never seen a bolder statement of friendship and loyalty captured on film. Ever. By  inviting insecurity and darkness into the conversation, the scene expertly shows how Gordie and Chris are ready to (and in fact have already had to) take responsibility for their lives and reveals a wisdom way beyond their years.

I find some of the same sentiment in a scene where Godie is buying food for the trip, and the man in the store tells him he looks like his brother Denny, who died in a jeep accident a couple months earlier. «People ever tell you that?» «Sometimes,» Gordie says, and we cut to a memory from the dinner table that lays out how Denny always encouraged Gordie and spoke up for him against their cold and distant father. But to me, that «sometimes» could also mean something a bit more conflicted. Maybe, although he loves his brother dearly, he is tired of always being compared to him? We know from a scene earlier in the movie that his father disapproves of his friends, and asks why he can’t have friends that are «more like Denny’s.» But I would imagine that if Gordie is in fact a little tired of always being measured against Denny, he is also stricken with guilt, asking himself if these feelings mean that he doesn’t love his brother as much as he should. Kids do that all the time, rationalizing guilt and demanding more of themselves than any reasonable person would.

What’s most striking about Stand By Me is that it’s an extraordinarily well-observed movie. The youngsters balance between exuberance and the thrill of an adventure on the hand, and a deep sense of determination and a vaguely defined purpose on the other. The movie captures it by allowing the serious and the silly to go together, like a cinematic nod to the freewheeling minds and short attention spans of young people. It never crosses the line where it has to define itself as either a comedy or a coming-of-age drama, but it gives all its central characters seminal scenes – or even just gestures or lines – that make us understand them as complex people. Take the scene early on, where Vern pitches the trip to the others. Within a span of maybe ten seconds his mood goes from enthusiasm to reluctance and back to enthusiasm, in a way that’s easily recognizable at every pivotal moment later on. Teddy, for his part, is defined first by the train-dodge dare and later by the showdown at the junkyard, while Chris and Gordie have great emotional scenes that deepen our understanding of their special bond, and as with Teddy, they help to situate them socially as well.

This willingness to engage with these kid characters as kids, makes even lines that otherwise might have sounded ham-handed and overly precocious (“This is my age! I’m in the prime of my youth, and I’ll only be young once!) funny and touching, because the movie never looks down at its characters. I’m sure most of the eminently quotable one-liners originated in the Stephen King short story it’s adapted from, but Stand By Me might be one of the most quoteable movies I can remember having seen. The first lines sets up both the underlying mystery and the small-town romanticism beautifully: “I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in the summer of 1959-a long time ago, but only if you measure in terms of years. I was living in a small town in Oregon called Castle Rock. There were only twelve hundred and eighty-one people. But to me, it was the whole world.” There are a dozen others (the infamous “Suck my fat one, you cheap dime-store hood“; “You guys look like my grandmother having a conniption fit“; “[It was] the kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls“, “We were supposed to be heroes“; “I’m never gonna get out of this town, am I, Gordie?”, etc.), and if you’ve read this far, I encourage you to post your favorite quote in the comments section.

Returning to the theme of its loveable imperfections, however, I’ve always argued with myself over parts of the voice-over. For instance, there’s one line in the last scene where Chris and Gordie say goodbye that it took me me a long time to make peace with. We’ve known from the very first scene that Chris was recently killed in a knife fight, and  the narrator says «Chris, who’d always made the best peace, tried to break it [the knife fight] up.» It struck me as overwritten and a little too idealizing. But now that I think of it, it fits. Not only because this is at its core a film that thrives on nostalgia and the healing powers of old friendships, but also because that particular character trait had been so prominently on display in Chris throughout the movie, from getting Teddy to calm down after the train-dodging incident to the way he comforts Gordie when he breaks down at the sight of the dead body, and thus finally reveals his real motivation for going on the journey in the first place.

Also, there’s the very last scene in the movie, in which Dreyfuss as the older Geordie is finishing the story he has just told us.  His final lines: «I never had any friends later on, like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?» While beautiful on a poetic level, it initially struck me as crossing the line into sentimentality, and I found its claim to universal truth a stretch. On repeated viewings, however, I’ve come around to the view that it actually encapsulates precisely what it is that I love about Stand By Me. Even at moments when its ever-present earnestness is in danger of going too far, it shows its mettle, in the sense that it doesn’t shy away from it. It’s almost like the movie itself is channeling the “game of chicken” scene with its main villain, Kiefer Sutherland’s terrifying Ace.

As a matter of storytelling, Stand By Me also has a keen eye and respect for how people change as they go through life. They may have been companions on the journey to find Ray Brower’s dead body at Back Harlow Road, but, as the older Gordie explains, Vern and Teddy eventually drifted out of his and Chris’ lives. They simply grew apart from them. This is another one of those points in the movie that I love to argue with myself about. I know that these are the facts of life, but a part of me wants to protest that this shows that Gordie’s thinks he’s somehow better than them. It corresponds with a sense from very early on in the movie, that Gordie considers himself the most serious of the four (see the “maybe this shouldn’t be a party” quote above) Like I’ve said before, it’s the movies that you have to struggle with that will stay with you the longest.

In the end, this awareness of how life changes people, coupled with its slightly nostalgic and romanticizing feel, is about respect. And the fundamental insight that handling grief often involves a deep-seated fear of forgetting. That, I think, is why Stand By Me, a now 26 year old movie, is the movie that has taught me the most about life in the last year. Amd maybe ever.

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