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Stand by Me (1986)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

More than any coming-of-age movie, Stand by Me is filled with a slow, billowing sense of dread.  Characters frequently find themselves on the run from some approaching doom, where it comes in the form of chugging trains, howling coyotes, or an attack dog who lives to sic balls.  Of course, these kids are really running from something darker and more deadly:  The relentless reach of grief, the stigma of abuse, and even an unspoken fear of failure.  All this emotional intensity supplies a dramatic heft rarely found in this genre.  As Stand by Me marches to its inevitable conclusion, we dread not only what these boys will find in their morbid adventure, but also what kind of men will emerge from such scarring childhoods.

Indeed, director Rob Reiner frames his story with one of these boys as an adult (Richard Dreyfuss).  He is Gordie, a writer who narrates his life story with the pleasant tint of rose-colored nostalgia.  His dialogue whisks us back to Oregon, circa 1959.  We see the 50s in a way Hollywood seldom shows us:  Gordie and his buddies smoke, drink, and swear like sailors.  This isn’t the idealized fiction of Ozzie and Harriet.  In fact, part of Stand by Me‘s success lies in its careful blend of glossy production values and startling realism.

The story (based on Stephen King’s novella, The Body), shows us four ragamuffin boys somewhere in small-town Oregon.  Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the smartest and cleanest-cut.  Chris (River Phoenix) is the cocky leader, whose brash swagger belies a tender humanity underneath. Teddy (Corey Feldman) runs solely on flailing rage–his ear was burned by his abusive father.  Finally, Vern wanders along with the group, content to be amiable and oblivious. For the most part, he supplies them with comic relief.

The group gets a jolt when Vern climbs into their tree house and tells them about a dead body.  Some boy went missing a few months ago, and now his corpse lies deep in the woods.  Maybe they’ll get a reward for leading authorities to the kid.  Maybe their parents will finally appreciate them for something!  Or…maybe it’ll just be cool to see a dead body!  Whatever the case, the gang sets on a long trek to find the deceased, and reap whatever rewards come with it.

Of course, their quest is chocked with peril.  It’s twenty miles between them and the body.  Along that journey lies attack dogs, leeches, and speeding locomotives.  Even worse, a group of teenage thugs (led by Keifer Sutherland, looking like he just missed the casting call for The Outsiders) also knows about the boy, and are also racing in that direction.

That plot supplies just enough for the movie to coast along for 89 minutes.  Most of the dialogue consists of the boys ragging on each other, spilling their guts, or just jabbering about nothing.  (“If I could only have one food to eat for the rest of my life?  That’s easy.  Cherry-flavored Pez.”)

Reiner was still early in his directorial career, but he already flashes the assuredness of an old pro.  The film brims with Spielbergian tracking shots and wide open vistas that glaze the film with a fantastical sheen.  He also has a keen ear for 50s pop culture, with just the right mix of pop hits and deeper cuts.

As for the cast, it’s no mistake that all four leads became bigger stars.  Gordie serves as the story’s POV, and Wheaton gives him a sturdy and nerdy likability.  (Of the four main characters, I–of course–relate most to Gordie.) Phoenix was already perfecting the Bad Boy with a Heart of Gold, and he commands the screen with the charisma of a future leading man.  Feldman brings untethered rage and subtle poignancy to Teddy, who uses his hot temper to conceal a broken heart.  And there’s O’Connell, who’s pitch perfect as the doughy, lovable goob whose sensibility is often mistaken for cowardice.

Head over to Rotten Tomatoes and read a few reviews, and you’ll see raves that mark Stand by Me as a film for the ages.  As for me, I’ve never been able to hoist it on that high of a pedestal.  The acting, writing, and even the story are all really good, but there’s nothing overly great about any of it. I appreciate Stand by Me, and would recommend it to any movie fan.  I’ve just never been able to bring myself to love it.

89 minutes.  R.  Amazon Video.


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