Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me” (1986) was a major turning point, both for the director and the state of Stephen King films, which, at that point, had become a joke.
While King’s onslaught of bestselling horror novels made him a giant (or, indeed, a King) of the literary world, the movie adaptations were becoming too ubiquitous and a source of embarrassment.
The initial glow of the acclaimed, prestigious hits “Carrie” (1976) and “The Shining” (1980) gave way to the middle of the road “Christine” (1983) and “Cat’s Eye,” (1985) onto nonsense like “Firestarter” and “Children of the Corn” (both 1984).
By 1986, a new Stephen King novel meant “IT” and “The Eyes of a Dragon,” while a new King movie meant “Silver Bullet” and “Maximum Overdrive,” the latter directed by King himself, who admitted his lone directing effort was an evil truck-sized misstep.
Reiner, on the other hand, was drawn to King’s “The Body,” one of four novellas tucked into King’s great, most non-horror story collection, “Different Seasons” (1982). The title was wisely changed to “Stand By Me” and the story itself found King looking inward, painting a story of deep friendship, childhood guilt, death and a precious time forever lost.
It begins with a writer, played by Richard Dreyfuss, sitting in his vehicle, parked alongside the road, remembering his youth. Set in Castle Rock (later the name of Reiner’s company), we meet four young boys (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who come from troubled homes.
Gossip that the corpse of the 12-years old Ray Brower, lying unattended in the woods, sends the four of them on a journey to claim the body, and a reward, as theirs. Along the way, the quest for local fame becomes both a trek of survival and a greater understanding of one another.
The boys aren’t typical movie kids who spew out one-liners and come across as “cute.” They seem like actual young men, quirky, foul-mouthed, awkward and recognizable; they discuss topics ranging from Annette Funicello’s body to the dread of flipping a “goocher,” Mighty Mouse vs. Superman, PEZ, “The 64,000 Dollar Question,” and Goofy’s identity as a dog.
I won’t reveal which one of them I related to the most, only that, at some point, I was all four of them and it isn’t easy being the weird kid.
Reiner’s film explores the harm inflicted by adult cruelty (verbal and physical) and, just as traumatizing, adult indifference, particularly from a parent. The crisp storytelling (the screenplay is by Reiner, Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon) and impressive performances carry it.
Wheaton and Phoenix are so good together – they share a rich chemistry that suggests a deep understanding between them. Phoenix, even here, at such a young age, demonstrates why he was one of the best actors of his generation: watch him as he explains exactly what happened to him during his thievery and the humiliating outcome that followed.
This isn’t an actor reciting lines but an artist who grasps the weight of words.
Feldman crushes his big moments, particularly the painful scene where he endures rotten insults from the owner of a junk yard, directed at his father, and explodes with anger.
O’Connell is the one who, on occasion, play-acts. Otherwise, the four are natural and give performances scrubbed of “child acting.” Clearly, Reiner is good with child actors, as this and, yes, even “North” (1994) demonstrated.
Dreyfuss’ participation is small but crucial. His narration is understated and an asset (between this and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” this was the actor’s comeback year). John Cusack is very good in his few scenes (he was far better utilized here in small doses than as the lead in all of “One Crazy Summer,” released the same season).
Between this and “The Lost Boys” the following summer, this was Kiefer Sutherland in his brief run as the scariest young man at the movies.
“Stand By Me” sports a trim running time of a tight 90-minutes. The editing is superb – note the set up and building of tension during the “train dodge” scene. This is one of Reiner’s finest films and a standout King adaptation and not just because it isn’t a horror film; it’s in the same vein as “Dolores Claiborne,” which is also about surviving a rotten period of your life and finding bravery in the worst moments.
Reiner’s directing career began with the groundbreaking mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” (1984), proceeded onto the better-than-it-should-have-been “The Sure Thing” (1985) and peaked with this, “The Princess Bride” (1987), “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) and “Misery,” his 1990 King adaptation that is his masterpiece.
Reiner sometimes leans into his sitcom roots, but he doesn’t double down on the comedy and admirably lingers on the moments that are wrenching and revelatory. The actors make their acting choices appear instinctual rather than overly rehearsed.
On the other hand, there’s “The David Hogan Story,” which comes at the mid-point: Wheaton’s Gordie tells his buddies a story over the campfire that is fittingly gross and funny in the way a whoopee cushion is funny. When I was the age of the boys, I found this scene hilarious. Now, watching a heavyset kid being mocked by a group of the Benevolent Order of the Antelope, twins, and a town MC, is no longer fun, though my distaste for it may be the point.
After all, isn’t it a story for boys who find farts and boogers a riot?
On a technical note, the geyser of vomit in this scene is visibly a hose just off camera, which kind of breaks the illusion, though it’s still enough to elicit “Ewww’s” from anyone. I can do without this portion and wish it existed as a deleted scene only, but it’s not deal breaker.
As a King tale, this group of four best friends feels like a preamble to The Loser’s Club of “IT.” The flashbacks oddly feel similar to those in Mary Lambert’s “Pet Sematary” (1989) and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s the feeling of dread they carry, or the weight of those who are no longer alive and terribly missed.
Like Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) and Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (2009), Reiner’s film completely gets the complex, hard to pin down emotions of youth and the bliss and pain you experience with your friends while trying to figure out the grownup world around you.
“Stand By Me” acknowledges that hard moment when, in the midst of all the joy and possibilities of being a kid, there’s the dread of knowing this time will end. The theme of loss extends to how removed we are from 1986, as well as the late Phoenix, who left us far too young, in 1993.
Many have noted the simple, beautiful way Reiner has some of the characters visually fade away at the end, visualizing the aching weight of their absence to the narrator. Of all the lines that stick to the throat, my favorite is this one: “It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.” It hurts, because it’s so true.