Stand by Me (1986)

I’ve never been able to connect with buddy kid films as I was never able to figure out the dynamic of male childhood. While everyone else was out goofing around with friends, I was at home reading books. Acts of physical prowess, the continual slander of one’s mother and general tomfoolery were not my forte but integral to the behavior of the young kids of Stand by Me.

Four fast friends begin a trek to see their first dead body after Vern (Jerry O’Connell) discovers that his older brother made a huge mistake. The crazy, masochistic, Teddy (Corey Feldman), troubled, but thoughtful, Chris (River Phoenix) and the rich kid, Gordie (Wil Wheaton), begin their trek across the countryside while fooling about and learning far more about themselves than they expected.

Now while I didn’t spend much time hanging out with kids, I’ve met each of these kids throughout my childhood. And while they are easily identifiable, what makes the film work is that these characters are developed through the film and it becomes clear why they are the way they are. Each character has their own troubled past they must work through on the journey.

But what brings these characters depth and empathy is the fantastic child cast performance. It’s hard for a film involving children to have one solid performance, but the cast is unanimously strong. I didn’t even know River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton were the leads. But it’s Corey Feldman’s performance as the crazy and troubled kid of the group that steals the show.

The film is a surprisingly mature look at kids struggling over the issues of perception, identity and behavior. Each of them has a problem either within their family or community and must find a way to overcome and pass beyond the issue facing them.

Even at its short runtime, the film has too much padding. There are a couple of antidotal stories told throughout the film that has little bearing on the plots or characters, one in particular is a bit too grandiose and self-indulgent. There’s also a subplot that follows the older kids in the neighborhood that adds little to the film.

The core buddy adventure of Stand by Me is nestled between bookend narrations by one of the boys as an adult. Besides the fact that it conveys information not necessary for the core story, it caps the film off with a sappy and heavy-handed moral. Even worse, is that the actual lesson conveyed is something that the audience should glean from their own experience, as the film is aimed at adults looking back on their own childhood.

Stand by Me features a strong cast of characters, but is bogged down by its plot. It’s better when directionless, when the characters are hanging out and generally forgetting about the entire goal of their expedition. It allows the characters to shine through and stand at the forefront, allowing their conflicts and troubles resonate with the audience.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing