In the twenty-five years since Stand By Me was released in cinemas, has there been a better movie about the twilight of childhood? Watching it again with the newly released Blu-ray I was struck, as I always am, by how it captures with uncanny precision a group of kids entering their teens without relying on sentimentality; you feel like these guys grow up, over the course of the movie, in front of your eyes. As a child I loved the movie as an adventure story, which it is, but as it and I grow older its seems increasingly poignant and true.
The plot concerns four boys in 1950s’ Oregon who hear that the body of a dead child is lying near the railroad track, a couple of days’ walk from home. This is too intriguing a possibility to miss, so they make their excuses to their parents and head off. At the very least they reckon they will get their pictures in the newspapers. A group of older guys from town are after the same thing; they are led by Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), an obnoxious bully. Primarily, though, the movie focuses on the journey of the four boys; it doesn’t feel the need to cram in contrivance and heavy drama to spice things up.
It has endured, in part, because of its lightness of spirit and humour; the kids are allowed to be kids, despite the darker elements of the plot. Some of the movie’s set-pieces are minor classics; the scene on the bridge with the train, for instance, or the African Queen-inspired leech scene. There is a genuine, infectious feeling of camaraderie between the four.
That the movie is, I maintain, a great adventure story for children (absurdly, it’s still rated 15 in the UK and R in the States) isn’t to say that they will miss its darkness. Ominous adulthood hangs over everything, and the children’s lives have been tainted by various pains and tragedies. The narrator, Gordie (Will Wheaton) has recently lost his older brother (played in flashback, briefly, by John Cusack), and his heartbroken parents barely register him. Chris (River Phoenix), his best friend, is looked down upon by Gordie’s parents and most of the townspeople; he’s from a bad family, they reckon, and rumours surround him about stolen milk money. Teddy (Corey Feldman) was physically abused by his father, whom he still idolises, and who now resides in an institution. Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is perhaps the sweetest of the bunch; his priorities include bringing a comb, so they will look good when they get photographed.
The story is adapted from a Steven King novella called “The Body” (from the same collection that gave us The Shawshank Redemption) and is among the very best adaptations of King (along, for my money, with “Shawshank” and The Shining). For one thing, it has some of the best child acting I think I’ve seen. Phoenix’s performance is often singled out, understandably, but all four are excellent; I watched the movie having just seen J.J. Abrams’s Super 8, a reasonably diverting entertainment but one whose two-dimensional characters are completely shown up by the comparison.
The director is Rob Reiner, who in the 1980s made a handful of real gems: along with this, he directed This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. I have a great deal of affection for all of them, and “Spinal Tap” is probably the most influential, but this is my favourite.
Among the details that the film gets just right are the kids’ obsessive mother-based taunts, their mythologising of trivialities (Vern warns of dark forebodings when they all flip tails in a coin-toss) and their analysis of pop culture (‘If Mickey’s a mouse and Pluto’s a dog… what’s Goofy?’). They are never given dialogue that serves only to further the story; one of the most memorable sequences – the movie’s only real tangent – has Gordie telling a gross-out campfire story involving an overweight kid getting his own back at a pie-eating contest. The photography, by Thomas Del Ruth, perfectly captures a half-remembered Summer without feeling too rose-tinted. Certainly nostalgia runs through the movie, but it is restrained, and if you haven’t seen the film since you were young you may be struck by, compared to many other 1980s movies, how well it has aged.
The story is framed by the older Gordie – a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, who narrates – who is now a writer, recording his memories. The device might have made the movie feel more kitschy, but I think it has the opposite effect; it contextualises the rest of the movie as memory, which is exactly how it feels. At the risk of sounding irredeemably sentimental, returning to the movie is like returning to a time in your past, regardless of how different or similar your childhood was. There is so much sadness in these kids’ lives, but they still have it in them to act like carefree children, and the melancholy is never lingered on; you never feel like you are being manipulated. I always find the shots of them returning to town towards the end of the film heartbreakingly poignant. One of the key lines in the movie belongs to Teddy, who when told by Chris he ought to ‘act his age’ retorts ‘this is my age!’ Maybe they know what’s coming; they’ve seen and experienced enough to know that the Summer is short, and it’s coming to an end.
If anything it gets better with age; few movies about children made since hold a candle to it and of its decade it is second only to E.T. FIVE STARS
While it’s not the sharpest Blu-Ray transfer I’ve ever seen, with occasional specks, the movie looks wonderful. There’s still a little graininess preserved, which feels about right, and the photography of the landscapes is as handsome and evocative as it ought to be. FOUR STARS
A perfectly fine DTS-HD 5.1 mix that doesn’t do too much with the surround but the dialogue and music are very crisp. More might have been done with some of the sound effects, such as the train, but perhaps a more modern sounding surround mix would have been a distraction for a movie that originally had a mono soundtrack. THREE AND A HALF STARS
Rob Reiner’s fairly interesting commentary from the DVD is retained, along with the making-of feature and music video from that disc. The making-of features interviews with the three surviving boys along with Reiner and Steven King. Best of all however is a new picture-in-picture commentary with Reiner, Feldman (who still looks pretty much the same) and Wheaton discussing the movie from both technical and personal perspectives; I was a bit wary of the picture-in-picture concept but found this surprisingly engaging. There is also a feature called MovieIQ that allows you to access information about the film via the internet during the movie. FOUR STARS
A nicely designed case with gold lettering and well laid-out menus. FOUR STARS
Just about an essential buy, I would say, particularly if you don’t have the DVD. An excuse to return to a modern classic that looks better than ever; unless of course you’ve never seen it, in which case what are you doing with your life? FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Stand By Me: 25th Anniversary Edition is available now on Blu-Ray.