'Stand By Me': A Retrospective Review
Stand By Me is a 1986 drama "coming of age" film directed by Rob Reiner (yes, o' dude from All in the Family) and based on Stephen King's novella The Body.
I'm not a King fan (I find his faux woke BS really annoying and most of his stories repetitive and derivative), but I will admit that a lot of his older stories are engaging.
The protagonist and narrator is Gordie Lachance, an aspiring writer and King's self-insert. He is a nerdy and sensitive boy whose brother recently died in a car accident. As a result, his parents are still heavily grieving when the story begins. This makes it easy for him to slip away with his friends, as his parents aren't paying much attention to him in the first place.
As the protagonist, the story is told from Gordie's perspective and Gordie's perspective alone, something which I really enjoy because it gives an ounce of mystery to the other characters.
We never really know what's going on in the heads of the other boys and instead must rely on Gordie to guess for us based on what he knows of them. This really does wonders for the story because the audience never knows what the other characters might decide to do.
Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) is Gordie's best friend.
He is written to subvert the trope of the small town bad boy. People in town look down on him as a criminal in the making, while ignoring actual criminals like Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland).
Chris is put forth as this tough, outlaw kid from a bad family who should be shunned at all costs when in reality he's a gentle, sensitive boy who is strong, knows how to assert himself, believes in keeping the peace, but will do whatever he must to survive.
Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) is probably the most messed up kid in the group.
While the other kids all have their problems, he has been physically and mentally abused by his father, who once held his ear to the kitchen stove.
He is wild, loud, and chaotic, and the fact that he stands in front of an oncoming train and has to be pulled away is a clear indication that he is suicidal. People rarely joke about suicide, and people who want to be alive do not play with their lives.
Teddy is nicely set up to be the one who snaps toward the end of the film, only to have our expectations subverted.
Vern (Jerry O'Connell) is probably the most "normal" kid in the group. His role in the story stems from the fact that he overhears his gangster brother talking about a dead body.
Vern is eager to see the body for himself, believing he'll be a hero on the news if he calls it in. The story opens with him propositioning his friends to join him.
As the protagonist, Gordie naturally gets the most backstory.
On the way to see "the body," the boys realize they were too short-sighted to pack food. They stop in a junkyard where a bloodthirsty dog lives (okay -- but WHY?) and flip coins to decide who has to go and buy food. Gordie loses and has to make his way to the corner store.
Once there, Gordie is relentlessly drilled about his dead brother by the store owner, which triggers a flashback. In Gordie's memory, we see how his father irrationally hates him, ignores him, and refuses to support his interest in writing.
Once again, I can't help but feel this was some kind of code for homophobia. Otherwise, why would Gordie's father irrationally despise him for pursuing an interest that isn't "manly" enough?
Gordie's brother is a football player and is doted on by his father for this, while Gordie is hated. As they are sitting at dinner, he asks his father to pass him the potatoes at least three times and is deliberately ignored.
Gordie's father also disapproves of his friendship with Chris Chambers but doesn't seem to care that he's friends with Teddy Duchamp, who is just as troubled.
While I don't believe that Gordie is actually gay, it's my belief that his father assumes him to be gay. And apparently, there are some people who agree.
Once Gordie buys the food, he returns to the junkyard to discover his friends have leapt the fence in order to avoid the dog that lives there. The dog is then set after him. He imagines hearing the yard owner scream, "Chopper, sic balls!" and he runs and jumps the fence, escaping with his genitals intact.
The scene also defines Teddy as a character when the junkyard owner, Milo Pressman (William Bronder), confronts the boys about teasing his dog. He insults Teddy's father and mocks him for being in an insane asylum.
The scene shows how lost and in denial Teddy is when he speaks in defense of his abuser and is personally hurt about insults against the man who once held his ear to a stove. He completely loses it and launches at the fence in an attempt to attack the junkyard owner. As he is dragged away by his friends, Milo Pressman shouts that he's going to call all their parents -- except for Teddy's father, who is locked away "in the loony bin."
In the scene that follows, Teddy snaps on his friends when they try to comfort him. It makes sense: most people who aren't used to being loved don't know what to do with love when they finally get it.
In the next scene, we see Ace and his gang hanging out, smoking, listening to the radio, and working on their car while carving their gang name "Cobras" into each other with knives. In a relaxed state, they all seem very normal and content when they're not committing crimes and bullying people. It's almost . . . surreal.
While following the train tracks, Chris and Gordie have an intense argument, and the relationship between them becomes defined for the audience by it: Chris sees himself as Gordie's father.
Chris is poor, comes from a troubled home, and feels his life will likely take him no where. As a result, he lives vicariously through Gordie, who he sees as a person with phenomenal writing talent.
Gordie wants to give up his writing so that he can continue to be with his friends, but Chris warns him not to let his friends drag him down,
"It’s like God gave you something, all those stories you can make up, and he said: This is what we got for you kid. Try not to lose it. But kids lose everything unless somebody looks out for them and if your folks are too f****** up to do it then maybe I ought to."
Ironically, it's Chris' paternal care for Gordie that leads Gordie's father into thinking his son is gay.
I still think Chris is gay and uses that "I'll be your father if he won't" crap to hide it because he knows Gordie isn't gay.
The adventure takes a turn for the worst when the boys cross the tracks over a bridge and a train comes. Chris and Teddy are fast enough to outrun the train, but Vern gets scared, falls down, and clings to the tracks. He has to be pried up by Gordie, and the two boys are forced to throw themselves off the tracks and down the hill just as the train comes.
That night around the fire, Gordie tells the story of Lard-Ass (Andy Lindberg), which I skipped through on my recent viewing of the film because I think it's f******* disgusting.
The story is basically about an obese boy who wins a pie eating contest by making his entire town throw up as revenge for picking on him. It's supposed to demonstrate how "talented" a writer Gordie is but really, it's just a nasty, juvenile story.
When I was Gordie's age, I was writing about cool shit like werewolves hunting people in the night, women pirates off on grand adventures, or cool super heroes saving people. Where the hell was Gordie's mind at?
After the story, they sit around the fire and talk about Goofy versus Pluto and cherry flavored Pez -- you know, the stuff that seems important before you discover girls. "Discover girls," says the narrator, as if the boys weren't going on about some girl's nice "tits" a few scene back.
The next scene is hilarious in how it defines each one of the boys as characters.
The boys awake in the night when they hear barking and howling. I immediately thought, "Why wasn't one of them sitting up on watch?" (Seriously, I haven't seen this film in years, so I completely forgot about this scene.)
No sooner had the thought passed through my mind than Teddy suggests the same thing. He then takes first watch and hilariously stands there narrating his own life out loud, as if he were a badass in a war film. His mutterings keep the other boys awake, who frequently complain and tell him to shut up.
Vern is next to stand watch. He is silent but -- being the jittery coward that he is -- is very paranoid. He figits and starts at the smallest hoot of an owl, constantly cocking the gun and pointing it at imaginary ghosts.
While Chris is on watch, Gordie wakes from a nightmare about his brother's funeral where his father says, "It should have been you." He tells Chris that he didn't cry at the funeral and that he misses his brother.
Gordie and Chris then continue their earlier argument about college. Gordie says he wants Chris to come to college with him, and Chris insists that kids like him -- kids who are born into no-good families -- don't go to college. He then breaks down crying as he confesses to having stolen the milk money at school.
We are shown a scene where Ace and his gang decide to drive out and see the dead boy -- ironically for the same juvenile reason as Chris and his gang: they think they'll be heroes.
The next scene is probably the most memorable scene from the film -- or at least it was to me when I was a child. It's something that I always remembered. I'm not sure why, but I felt as traumatized as poor Gordie.
The boys decide to take a shortcut off the train tracks and through the woods, ignoring Vern's protests. They come to a pool of water that looks shallow, only to fall in and discover that it's actually neck-deep.
After a brief wrestling match in the water, they realize they are covered in leeches and scramble to undress. Gordie finds a leech on his genitals and faints.
A scene later, and we see a traumatized Gordie sitting against a tree and staring while his friends fight about whether or not to take him home. The other three boys get in a physical fight that is only broken up when Gordie screams for them to shut up. He screams so loud -- and with such uncharacteristic rage -- that the others freeze and look at him in amazement.
Gordie then stands up and announces that he's not going home. He walks off and the other boys follow.
Meanwhile, Ace and his gang play Chicken with another gang on the road. For those who don't know (or don't remember the film) playing Chicken is essentially driving on the wrong side of the road with the risk of crashing into an on-coming car.
Ace drives on the wrong side of the road and refuses to fall back when a truck comes his way, forcing the truck to lunge off the road. His friends are horrified that they could have been killed, but Ace calmly says, "I won" before driving on.
The point of this scene is to show us how psycho Ace is. I mentioned before that this movie was written from a single perspective, and I still see it that way. I don't count it when villains have their own character defining scenes because those short scenes are solely meant to build tension and suspense. They aren't there to give the villain's perspective on anything. We don't really learn much about Ace except that he's reckless and cruel, which is all we need to know, really.
We have to keep in mind that this film is based on a novella, which is much shorter than a novel and thus requires the writer to build a character on a small amount of defining traits within a few chapters.
The boys find the body, but Ace and his gang show up just as they are preparing to take it away. Chris' brother, Richard "Eyeball" Chambers (Bradley Greg), is with them, as well as Vernon's brother, Charlie (Gary Riley).
Ace tells the kids to leave or he'll beat them up. Vernon and Teddy eventually flee, but Chris stands his ground, refusing to back down. His brother, Eyeball, tries to coax him out of it but doesn't make an attempt to protect him from Ace either.
Ace pulls out a knife and is just about to cut Chris' throat when a gunshot rings through the air. Everyone looks around to see Gordie has pulled Chris' gun and is aiming it at Ace. Out of all the boys, he's the one who stood by Chris no matter what.
This is where the film's theme song and title "Stand By Me" comes from.
After chasing Ace off, Gordie and his friends decide to place an anonymous call for the body, rather than turning it in themselves.
We are then told what happens to each one of them later in life.
Vernon and Teddy eventually stop being friends with Gordie and Chris as they progress through high school.
Vernon gets married right out of high school and becomes a forklift driver.
Teddy tries to join the military but is denied because of his eyesight and his ear. The last they hear of him, he is in jail.
Chris goes to college with Gordie and is killed in a knife fight years later -- which, in hindsight, places his near-death at the hands of Ace and his switchblade as a piece of foreshadowing.
As Adult Gordie closes the document on his very ancient box-shaped computer, we see that he has two sons and is a writer. The film ends with him playing with his sons and loving them in the way his father never loved him.
All in all, a pretty good film. If I didn't think it was, I wouldn't have watched it so many times as a kid.
© 2018 Ash