1959. Four friends, Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern hear that a dead body has been found near the railway tracks many miles away from their home town of Castle Rock, Oregon. Although they are only 12 years old and expect a hiding from their parents, they hatch a plan to set off to find the body, hoping for fame and glory but instead finding out and disclosing to each other an awful lot about themselves.
With Super 8 fresh in many people’s minds, a film about a group of young friends on the cusp of adolescence embarking on an adventure and “coming of age” in the process of some sort of “rite of passage” will sound familiar, maybe even clichéd. Nothing could be further from the truth when considering Stand By Me. Made in 1986 and featuring an absolutely impeccably cast group of young boys, Stand By Me speaks volumes about the nature of friendship when you are twelve, the emotional upheaval involved in finding your place and your way in the world, the challenges we face in trying to overcome the disadvantages of our upbringing and the deep-seated pain caused by sometimes thoughtless, sometimes neglectful parents and teachers.
Each character is given a thoughtful, considered and distinctive backstory. Teddy (Corey Feldman) has an abusive father who has now been committed to an institution, but not before pushing Teddy’s ear down onto a hot stove. Vern (a nigh-on unrecognisable Jerry O’Connell) is initially dismissed as the silly, chubby one, but desperately wants to be a proper part of the gang, having overheard his older brother talking about the body and first brought to his friends the idea of looking for it. Gordie is a gifted writer, but is virtually ignored by his parents who have emotionally shut down following the death of Gordie’s beloved big brother (a brief but affecting cameo from John Cusack) and Gordie can’t shake the feeling that everyone wishes he had died instead of his brother. As Gordie breaks down at the end, sobbing “my Dad hates me”, your heart breaks for the pain that his young shoulders are trying to carry. Chris (River Phoenix) is the leader of the gang, the most mature and confident of them, but he has been branded a thief over an incident with milk money at school and feels shackled by the reputation of his family.
All of this sounds pretty bleak and oppressive, so it is to director Rob Reiner (Spinal Tap, Misery, The American President)’s eternal credit that he manages to balance the tone so well. Yes, there are times where his young cast break down in mesmerisingly convincing tears or well-up with deep-seated rage, but there is also breathless excitement, laughter, adventure, private jokes, ribbing, peril, camaraderie. You almost never catch them “acting”, a phenomenal achievement for any young cast, but especially when you consider how inexperienced most of them were. The two weeks they spent rehearsing before shooting pays off in spades in building the sense that these boys have been friends for years.
What also represents a terrific achievement for Reiner is that the whole adventure, all of the back stories, the bookend segments with Gordie played as a grown-up with his own family by Richard Dreyfuss and several flash-backs (plus one peerless fire-side story about a blueberry pie-eating contest) fits in seemingly effortlessly to a compact 90-minute running time. So many film-makers these days seem unable to make difficult editing choices and we get summer tentpole blockbusters coming in at over 2 1/2 hours for no discernible reason.
Flawlessly acted, beautifully shot, heart-achingly moving and affecting, at times rip-roaringly exciting and incomparably and unashamedly nostalgic. Much as I greatly loved Super 8, it is but a pale imitation of how Rob Reiner showed this sort of thing really should be done. If you haven’t seen it before, do so immediately. If you have, see it again. And again. Wonderful.
Blu-ray Extras: First of all, the Blu-ray transfer is excellent for this well-timed 25 year anniversary re-release. I’ve seen sharper Blu-rays, but given the 1959 setting and the nostalgic tone, it is fitting that it be a little softer around the edges. The special features are a mixture of old and new.
Bluray Exclusive: In picture commentary from Rob Reiner, Cory Feldman and Wil Wheaton. This is really interesting stuff for the most part, with recollections by one sparking the others off and each of them bringing different perspectives. Feldman’s frustration at himself not being able to have helped River in the period leading up to his death is moving to behold and in River’s key scenes a mournful hush descends over them all as they consider the premature loss of so considerable a talent. At one point Wil Wheaton relays a conversation he had with Sean Astin, wherein Astin said he would trade Wheaton Lord of the Rings for Stand By Me, showing just how significant a film this is in the hearts of that generation. Wheaton and Feldman share which lines tend to get called out to them, or quoted by their own children and Rob Reiner brings out a lot of interesting background as well.
Audio Commentary by Rob Reiner. A lot of this is repeated in the in-screen commentary, but there are a few new morsels to savour.
Making of Documentary. This dates back to 2000, so we see Wheaton, Reiner, Kiefer Sutherland, O’Connell and Feldman looking a lot younger than they do now. It runs to 30 minutes and is generally informative and not too gushy, with input this time from Stephen King, who wrote the source novel and was 12 himself (just like Reiner) at the time the story is set.
Music Video and Trailers.
You can get Stand By Me on DVD and Blu-ray now. And you really ought to.