One of my favorite movies as a kid was Stand by Me and I recently re-watched it. Remarkably it holds up as an 80's classic. Movies about kids going on an adventure were always some of my favorite movies as a kid. Movies like The Goonies, The Explorers, The Neverending Story, and The Flight of the Navigator I could watch over and over again. But Stand by Me is a different kind of movie and besides for the whole going on an adventure story line I am not sure why as a kid I knew this movie was special. Unlike the other movies Stand by Me is a darker movie and has more adult themes.
To recap the movie centers on four 12 year old boys who learn the whereabouts of a dead boy who has been missing. Sensing that they could be famous if they find the body the four set out to look for him. The four boys are Godrie Lachance (Wil wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell). Each boy has their role in the group and their own tragic backstory. During their journey we learn more and more about each boy. Gordie is the brain who after his football star older brother died has been mostly ignored by his parents. Chris comes from a family of thieves and punks. His older brother is always getting into trouble and everyone assumes he will be the same way but he wants to be different. Chris and Gordie are best friend and the two of them are pretty much the brains and the brawn of the crew. Teddy is the crazy risk taker who has been abused by his alcoholic dad and no one expects too much to come from him. Vern is the fat kid who is a klutz and not very smart.
I think one of the reasons this movies holds up so well over time is that each boy is relatable and the themes of friendship and growing up are universal. From a screenwriting perspective it is amazing how well it works. I have been dabbling in screenwriting myself and many of the “rules” are seem to be broken in this screenplay, yet it is still a very effective screenplay that even got nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. The first rule that seems to be broken is the “show it don’t say it” rule which pretty much says having a narrator doing voiceover is a no-no. Yet it works in this movie. As the older Gordie retells the story we get the emotion of a man reminiscing about his childhood. He reflects on what is happening and what will happen in the future. There is something about time that makes things clearer and we get the sense that this story is more about catharsis for him than anything else and the voiceover works for that.
Another screenwriting “rule” that seems to be broken is “increasing tension”. A movie is supposed to increase the tension with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. While the train bridge, barf-o-rama, and leaches scene all stand out the boys are never in increased peril as they continue. For the most part they could turn around and go back at any point. Each event brings tension but the obstacles are not what increases the tension overall in the movie. The tension is all psychological and as they get closer it weighs more on their minds. But that is the incredible thing about the screenplay because it is hard to show on screen. Even with the voiceover explaining it to us there is still enough unsaid that it doesn’t feel forced. The movie is more about their emotional growth and figuring out who they then any actions.
While the writing was amazing we can’t forget the incredible job each actor did. For a bunch of child actors their roles were very adult like and they nailed it. Of course the stand out performance was River Phoenix as Chris. It was clear from this role that he was a promising young actor. He was able to be not only strong but also vulnerable. It is hard to watch that movie now and not think of how big of a career he could have had. But the other actors did a great job also and for most of them this is probably their best movie. Corey Feldman went on to star in other movies and became a teen heartthrob but his portrayal of Teddy is unlike anything he has ever done. Wil Wheaton was perfect as the quiet kid who has a lot of inner turmoil. While Vern was more of the comic relief in the movie Jerry O’Connell did a great job.
I read a list at one point that listed movies that should have won best picture each year during the 80’s. For 1986 they selected Stand by Me. Looking back now it seems like it is one of the movies that stood the test of time, but I'm not sure it would have ever beat Platoon for Best Picture. It does seems clear that it should have won best adapted screenplay.
Overall: 5/5 stars A movie that holds up incredibly well due to the writing, acting, and the universal theme of growing up and apart from friends. It is even more relatable now that I am older and look back to the friends I had when I was 12 and those last lines "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?" mean so much more.