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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Stand By Me (1986)

Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell and Kiefer Sutherland
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I've been a horror fiction nut ever since I can remember but I always loved the small press stuff and the pulp stuff best. I felt the more obscure names kept it a lot more real and fun than the million selling authors everyone has heard of, who presumably wrote for big money rather than for the joys of telling a story. Stephen King was the biggest of those big money authors so of course I avoided him like the plague. There was also a truism that stated that no matter how good or bad his source material was, the inevitable movie adaptation was going to be awful. With occasional arguable exceptions, this probably stayed in effect all the way up to Misery in 1990 when Kathy Bates broke the jinx. In the meantime I missed out on Stand By Me, partly because of that truism and partly because it wasn't a horror story at all but a coming of age yarn about four small town kids in the fifties who go to find a dead body but find maturity instead.

And yes, in keeping with King's technique of never using a hundred words when a thousand would do, that's about the entire plot. Luckily this particular plot relies to a massive degree on what is probably King's most obvious talent, the way in which he can see through the eyes of children. Somehow he has the knack of capturing the perspectives that kids live by but which most of us almost entirely forget about when we grow up, and that makes him the perfect candidate to write what became Stand By Me. He's the guy who says, 'Remember when...' and everyone else replies, 'Oh yeah!' The other reason that this film works so well is that the child actors who make up most of the cast here are actually better than most adult actors. The level of professionalism that these kids show is nothing short of stunning but they still successfully keep hold of the innocence that is inherently needed for a coming of age story.

It's 1985 and we're in Castle Rock, which for the purposes of this film is transplanted from Maine to Oregon, and we read in the paper along with Gordie LaChance that an attorney called Chris Chambers was stabbed in a restaurant. This prompts him, through the memorable voice of Richard Dreyfuss, to remember back to when he and Chris grew up together back in the fifties. In particular he remembers back to when he was twelve, going on thirteen, and he saw his first human corpse. It was the summer of 1959: 'a long time ago,' he says, 'but only if you measure in terms of years.' He and his three best friends hung out in a beat up tree house with a secret knock and the whole works. There isn't much to do out in the sticks, except smoke and swear and play cards, so when Vern Tessio arrives and asks, 'You guys want to see a dead body?' we're all set for the story. It's notable that it's Vern who brings this up because he's the nervous one.

He's also played by the least known of these four young actors, though Jerry O'Connell became successful enough to not warrant a description of 'the other guy', especially on TV where he's appeared in a few long running hits, not least Sliders and Crossing Jordan. Not really overweight, he's still close enough for bullies to use it as an excuse, not that they need one. Bullies in Castle Rock pick on everyone. This was O'Connell's acting debut, making Wil Wheaton, with four movies under his belt, rather experienced in comparison, even though he wouldn't land his dream part of Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation for another year. He's Gordie, a decent kid who has become, as he describes it, 'the invisible boy'. His elder brother Denny has been dead for four months, courtesy of a jeep accident, and his parents haven't come to terms with it yet, meaning that whenever they notice him it's merely to point out that he's not his brother.

Like O'Connell, Wheaton made his name on TV, but River Phoenix had already moved on from that, after a 1982 show based on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and he was ready to make it big in movies. This was his second film, after Explorers, but it made him very noticeable and he'd quickly move on to The Mosquito Coast, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and My Own Private Idaho. Here he plays Chris, who comes from a bad family and is expected to continue the tradition, even half believing it himself. That leaves Corey Feldman as Teddy Duchamp, a crazy kid whose father had burned most of his ear off by holding it to a hot stove. The Feldmeister defined cool to a generation back in the eighties, long before he lost his marbles and started clamouring for fish rights on The Surreal Life, but here he's more unsure than I've ever seen him. The front is still there but there's a vulnerability underneath that brings depth to his character.
And off they all go to look for Ray Brower, with $2.37 between them and no food. Ray Brower is officially missing, a twelve year old kid who went out to pick blueberries three days earlier and never came back. However Vern knows he's dead because, while under his house looking for his penny jar, he overhears his brother Billy telling Charlie Hogan about having found the body. Billy can't report it because he was in a stolen car at the time, so Vern rushes over to tell his friends. Opportunity is knocking and these kids know it. If they find the body themselves, they're sure to get into the paper, maybe even onto TV and that's the big time. There's a whole subplot about the elder kids, the gang run by Ace Merrill that Billy and Charlie belong to, along with Chris's elder brother Eyeball, but they're just a distraction. We're really here to watch the four younger kids on their quest to find the MacGuffin that provided the title of King's novella, The Body.

In doing so they reach adulthood, the shared experience leading every one of them to come to terms with something in their own lives without any of it ever seeming forced. That's by far the greatest success of this film and it's why it's staying the course while others fall by the wayside. Stand By Me is forty places higher in the IMDb Top 250 than it was when I grabbed the list in 2004 to work through. I'm still not sure where most of the credit is due. Certainly King's talent for telling adult stories through the eyes of children suggests the source material is most likely, but from what I've read about it it's darker and more pessimistic than the movie. Director Rob Reiner brings a far more subtle touch to proceedings than he did a couple of years earlier with This is Spinal Tap and would a year later with The Princess Bride. Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans wrote the screenplay after collaborating on Starman and this is definitely a notch up from that.

Perhaps it's a combination of the restraint of the filmmakers, the nostalgia of the story and the performances of the child actors that really sells the movie. Each of the four gets plenty of opportunity in the spotlight to define their past through clever vignettes and set up a way to get beyond it. Teddy decides to play chicken with a train, pretending he's storming the beach at Normandy like his hero father, even though the man had tried to kill him. At the junkyard he's forced by the owner through a fence to come to terms with the fact that his dad is insane and some of the wildness is pressured out of him. Vern panics when they all toss coins to see who has to go to the store for provisions and everyone comes up tails. That's a goocher and it's the worst luck imaginable. He panics at everything but when he's forced to face his panic and get over a railway bridge before the train barrelling up behind them knocks them off, he finds he can do it.

Chris is the leader of the gang, almost driven into delinquency by circumstances. Behind the Blue Point Diner he shows Gordie a gun that he stole from his dad but doesn't tell him its loaded. Yet he's really a sensitive kid, the one who tries to talk Gordie into going to college to become a writer rather than just be held back by his friends. Feldman proved he could act in the junkyard scene but Phoenix and Wheaton play so well off each other that their scenes together constitute some of the true highlights of the film. Perhaps most telling in Chris's life is the one where he breaks down to Gordie over some money he stole from school. He only did it because it's what everyone expected him to do and he got three days suspension for his troubles, but the rest of the story is that he gave the money back to the teacher who promptly stole it herself. The lesson is that if she can break expectations then perhaps he can too and it's here that he really begins.

That leaves Gordie. He gets a wake up call at the junkyard too, with his first glimpse of 'the dread Chopper, the most feared and least seen dog in town' whose owner has apparently trained specifically to attack young boys' testicles. After being chased by this fearsome monster, he learns his 'first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality.' It's Gordie who obsesses about seeing the body, seeing it as a sort of rite of passage, and it's Gordie who seems to leave childhood behind first, walking out of a swamp rather than joining his friends in dunking each other underwater. It's like that stuff just doesn't matter any more. 'Why did you have to die?' Gordie asks the corpse of Ray Brower but he's really asking his brother. He feels that it should have been him, because he believes, perhaps accurately, that his parents see him as worthless. However we know that he finds his way because he's telling this story all along, as The Writer.
Inevitably he gets most of the best lines, but I was impressed at how Gordie's dialogue as a twelve year old was kept realistic. He demonstrates his talent even at this young age through telling stories to his friends around the campfire, but great lines are kept sparse. The best is the pivot to the entire film: 'We're going to see a dead kid,' he explains midway through the journey. 'Maybe it shouldn't be a party.' Later, after becoming established as a writer, he knows just how to say what he wants to say. 'Finding new and preferably disgusting ways to degrade a friend's mother was always held in high regard,' he explains in the sardonic voice of Richard Dreyfuss, who magnificently captures both the joy and the sadness of nostalgia. He describes Castle Rock by saying, 'There were only 1,281 people. But to me, it was the whole world.' Naturally he has a definitive ending too: 'I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?'

My biggest problems with Stand By Me come through not being American. Stephen King is a very American writer, his work being drenched with brand names and pop culture references and little details that no other nationality can relate to. When the Berlin Wall fell and Poland could publish horror novels, Polish readers turned to Guy N Smith, a pulp horror writer whose work was simple and universal. By comparison they just didn't understand what King was talking about, so they made Smith the best selling author in the country for a couple of years instead. With Stand By Me, I get the coming of age and the rite of passage and the character growth, but the details flummox me. I understand intellectually how a pinky swear works, the concept behind mailbox baseball and just what 'two for flinching' means, but I don't grok any of it. Somehow I've never really grasped why Americans feel a need to ritualise dumbness as a condition for growing up.

What else I don't get is just why a story that so obviously revolves around four characters, and indeed is told by one of them from his memories, has to include so many scenes with the older kids, the gang led by Ace Merrill. If it's merely to show just how much these youngsters have grown over the course of the two days of their quest by contrasting their reactions to Ace and his gang of thugs, then it would seem to be overkill. We can buy into how tough they are from Kiefer Sutherland's first appearance as Ace, totally self-assured and Lost Boys tough cool with his hair, his stubble and his toothpick. If it's to highlight just what these kids have to look forward to, then it's a pretty depressing way of doing it. No wonder Chris Chambers wants to leave so bad and find somewhere where nobody knows who he is. I'm sure every kid feels that sometime but Chambers has a serious reason. All these scenes seem merely distracting to me.

In fact every time I watch this film I rediscover the older kids who I'd entirely forgotten. All the things I remember tie to the younger set: the junkyard, the bridge, the swamp and of course the bad language. We expect people like the late eighties Kiefer Sutherland to smoke and swear but we don't expect it from eleven year old Jerry O'Connell, who was impressed that he was being paid to swear. Admittedly his three co-stars ranged up to fifteen, but they all still play with the sort of language that kids this age love but don't tend to use around adults, especially back in the fifties. Every one of them would have had their mouths washed out with soap and water had their screen parents heard them, I'm sure, and the decision to keep it real led to this receiving perhaps the first R rating given for bad language alone. To me it's merely one memorable aspect of a memorable film that perhaps would only become more memorable if I was American.

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