Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986)
Continuing merrily along my cinematic Stephen King retro path with my 15 year old daughter during this time of the Great Pandemic 2020, brings us to a first entry that veers away from the horror genre (unsurprisingly, the first one I remember back in the day garnering major commercial hoopla from the mainstream critics), guided by the at-the-time relatively inexperienced hand of a director who would eventually mature (more appropriately – devolve) into one of those horrible Hollywood filmmakers, enabled in that role by the undiscerning masses who constantly reward the most shmaltzy, status quo-conforming, audience pandering drivel, of the kind I despise with all my heart; namely, he of the Hollywood liberal elite, ironically once much more familiar to Americans as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law and hippie foil, the peace-loving ‘meathead’, Rob Reiner.
Based upon one of the four King ‘novellas’ (or whatever the heck you call those things) I devoured in my youth that comprised the author’s “Different Seasons” (with three of them eventually turned into pretty, pretty good films), Stand By Me remains faithful to the source material (other than the changing the original, which was “The Body”, a title I favor, as it nicely conjures up something evocative out of the literal corpse that propels the entire exploration that is the narrative’s backbone… though I get it that likely the Hollywood folk thought it might sound too much like a gruesome horror flick, especially with King’s name attached).
Perhaps it was because he hadn’t yet quite figured out how to fine-tune (ie, crank up) the maudlin meter yet (along with the fact that even King, in the original story, managed to keep his worst, most self-indulgent instincts to a minimum – geez, between these two guys things could have gone really bad) but Reiner’s handling of this simple, late 1950’s set, nostalgic (it’s King after all, he’s nothing if not nostalgic, about everything – when he isn’t turning all deliciously nasty, that is) coming-of-age tale of four twelve year old small-town boys (with the setting changed from King’s beloved recurring fictional Castle Rock, Maine to a Castle Rock, Oregon… the last time anyone would dare do that to the author, I’m sure) as they make their perilous, yet innocent trek, one that will define much of their lives, learning about each other as they fend off cruel junkyard shop owners, a sudden leech attack (providing the film one of its most hilariously squirm-inducing moments) and their ferocious attack dogs, and then knife-brandishing juvenile delinquents (led by a young, effectively menacing Kiefer Sutherland), is handled with surprising subtlety and gentle thoughtfulness, playing well around the romantic memories from which the film draws its energy… adding just the right touch of poignancy (for a tale that had all the earmarks of spilling fatally over).
Gotta hand it to whoever cast this thing, as it is quite amazing how all four of these young actors – Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell — went on to stardom (and some infamy – need I mention the ‘Two Coreys’?). While Wheaton is the lead Gordie Lachance, narrating the tale from his adult vantage point (a brief wraparound cameo by Richard Dreyfus – making me immediately wonder if the once booming actor’s career was already in the midst of his cocaine/ego tailspin at that point), a boy growing up in a household haunted by the recent death of his older high school sports hero brother, a traumatic event the boy escapes from by turning to writing (which will eventually be his career – one of those little Stephen King autobiographical nods that oft works for him), with Feldman as the angry, deeply troubled Teddy, with the kind of broken down family life you can see written all over him (and his future), and the chubby and open-faced O’Connell as the dopy fourth wheel, one of those high schoolers who can’t help but turn himself into the butt of every joke (it is hard to fathom that this fat kid would develop into the studly, yet admittedly still kinda dopy looking, later star that he did), even then, the real star, the one you could see making an immediate impact (before his overdose, that is) is River Phoenix as Chris Chambers. With an innate wisdom that allows him to act as an occasional father figure to the kids (especially Gordie), while at the same time easily capable of the silliness and juvenile behaviour that defines that age, with one foot into delinquency, the other into self-awareness, Phoenix had it all going on already.
Attack of the Leeches
With Chris being Gordie’s best friend, and also the character who the later tragedy hinges upon that brings the older Gordie back to Castle Rock and deep into the memories of that time (signifying that final severing break from childhood – and I don’t dismiss that concept – I very clearly remember the day, in my early 20’s, when my mother and I brought my dying childhood dog Lucky to the vet to be put to sleep as the very literal end to mine), much of the tale revolves around remembrances of the Phoenix character, and his presence holds up to the scrutiny… at a mere 16 years of age.
Not all is perfect however, as director Reiner does start off on slightly wobbly footing; his direction of the opening treehouse scene (gotta have one of those, naturally) and a few scenes that follow early on are somewhat unconvincingly staged (adding in a surprisingly stiff, unconvincing turn by the usually reliable character actor Marshall Bell as our Gordie’s bereft father, who is supposed to be grief-stricken by the loss of his favored son and resentful for the survival of Gordie, but ends up acting more oddly somnambulistic) to the point where I wasn’t sure it was gonna really come together (on top of it, maybe it’s just me but… the setting, outfits… it all feels a bit more 1986 than 1959)… fortunately, though, once the kids get out there on their journey of discovery (under the guise of locating that literal/metaphorical body, natch), things start settling in nicely (and Bell’s father disappears from the narrative), with the (nostalgic) insights on life through the boys and their journey coming out… while I haven’t read the King story in awhile, perhaps it’s good he didn’t provide the screenplay, because the script doesn’t have the specific ‘preciousness’ the author tends to subscribe to moments and word choices that sometimes ring far more hollow than he seems to be aware of (I just read The Colorado Kid of his, a book I ended up admiring quite a bit, but, man, did I have to overlook a lot of that unfortunate King penchant for maudlin ‘preciousness’ to allow for that appreciation).
There are some inclusions into the film narrative straight from the book that work wonders… such as the aforementioned squirm-including leech scene, and – even more memorable – the visualization of Gordie’s late-night fireside chat to his three buddies (all listening with rapt attention, already knowing how well their friend can spin a yarn) telling them the latest tale he’s currently jotting down about an obese high school outcast who gets his final, very icky vengeance against all those – teachers, fellow students and townspeople – who have humiliated him at a pie eating contest; while hilariously grotesque, it also provides King a chance to explore the underlying autobiographical nature of oft the best fictional writing. It’s a fun and smart (if sloppily goopy) diversion in the moment, but a really good one.
I may have rejected it when it came out (on the grounds, primarily, of its over-celebrated status) but… laying aside my initial prejudices… it’s much better than I ever gave it credited for. And, to be fair, usual hack Reiner not only had one good King adaptation in him, he had two (if I remember that second one correctly, that is… more on that one when I get to it as the retro continues).