James Wharton on Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”


As final lines go, words that are not spoken, this one lingers in the minds of the droves of fans of Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming-of-age film Stand By Me. It neatly underlines the point of the film’s narrative while allowing us to ponder: were our best friends really the ones we had as children? The statement, an idea we can place ourselves, furnishes one of the film’s key strengths – reflection.

At the onset, a sombre-looking Richard Dreyfus sits in his car eyeing a newspaper headline about a tragedy involving the death of his childhood friend Chris. While pondering this loss, his attention is captured by two youngsters cycling by and away into the dimming sunlight; the vision sends his mind back to the 1950s when times were more innocent and to a final childhood summer with a friend, the now lost Chris (River Phoenix).

Our transfer places us at the start of what for Geordie (the 12-year-old version of Dreyfus’ character, played by Will Wheaton) and his three friends, Chris, Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), seems like an unmissable adventure to locate a missing child’s dead body. No sooner are they on their way that they come to realise their sugar-coated ideas may not be the expedition they envisioned.

Danger, which never seems far away, sees them come up against the seemingly definitive prospect of passing the county boundary and heading into the unknown delves of the state’s wilderness. And what a picturesque wilderness it is, furnishing another of the film’s great strengths, its cinematography.

Eventually, they must face “The Body” – the expression used by Stephen King to title the novella from which the film is adapted. King’s well-known preference for thrilling breaks through Reiner’s interpretive feel-good powers; the King thrill lives in this film aplenty.

But for all the childhood visions of adventure and the big moments the four boys must face – grown-up problems that deal with death, abuse, and neglect, they only have each other. And this bond, this companionship between Geordie and Chris that enables them to overcome the injustices they have each been served, is another cornerstone of the film’s strengths. It’s not the physical journey they conquer together but the emotional one.

The final element of Stand By Me that it would be remiss of this review to overlook is the performances of the four young actors. They are all outstanding, but the sixteen-year-old Phoenix’s exceptional (and career-changing) turn is crucial to why this film works so well. He’s just so watchable. The star later remarked that his identification with the character of Chris Chambers was so much so that he considered therapy once filming had concluded. And boy, does this connection show.

Self-reflexivity, the nature found within its cinematography, the bond written between the characters and extracted from the actors impeccably by the director, and the performance of River Phoneix are the four pillars that hold this great film above others.

Stand By Me is rightly labelled a classic.

James Wharton


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