Sunday, 13 March 2011
Stand By Me
Starring: Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland
By Alan Bacchus
The expert casting by Reiner and company solidifies the legacy of this fine film. I can’t think of any other group of child actors that commands the screen more effectively and with greater emotional depth than Stand By Me. This is a movie with almost no adult presence. Sure, Kiefer Sutherland and his gang of bullies provide periodic glimpses of young adults, but for 90% of this film we are with four 13 year olds holding their own on camera.
Directors will tell you the secret to directing child actors is casting the right kids and letting them be themselves. For Wheaton, Feldman, O’Connell and arguably River Phoenix, this was the pinnacle of their careers.
Including The Big Chill, The Wonder Years and others, Stand by Me fits in with a common theme of the 80s, filmmakers looking back on 1950's/60's post-war era from the skewed point of view of dreamy nostalgia. Of course, this story originated in a novella by Stephen King, his first non-horror film adapted as a feature. It’s the story of a group of four young teens in a lonely rural town who embark on a two-day hike to find the body of a dead boy.
One of the four kids is Gordie Lachance (Wheaton), a meek and skinny kid with feelings of inadequacy after his older brother passes away. Since the death of his brother, Gordie has retreated to the comfort of his childhood friends and his love of writing. There’s also Teddy Duchamp (Feldman), a loudmouthed shit-disturber who’ll do anything to wind people up, a defence mechanism masking his fractured home life. Vern Tessio (O’Connell) is the fat kid teased and pushed around by his buddies, but still a respected member of the foursome. And lastly, Chris Chambers (Phoenix) is the confident rebel and defender of the group. He’s from a hardened criminal family and desires to escape the expectations of failure that society has placed upon him.
Rob Reiner’s invisible direction is subordinate to the kids’ performances and the mood and tone of the period. The journey is effectively broken down into a number of set pieces along the way. Gordie’s tale of the pie-eating contest, for example, is cleverly incorporated as a story-within-a-story. The chase scene across the train bridge provides the most suspenseful moments, and sharp R-rated humour misdirects us from the sombre finale that awaits the kids.
The film’s narration is essential to conveying the nostalgic qualities of the story. The theme of memory and storytelling mix elegantly. We watch the film from the memories of Gordie as an older man reflecting on the times. We all know the effect of the passage of time – reality shaped by what we choose to remember about the past. As a result, the elder Gordie becomes an ‘unreliable narrator.’ We don’t really know if the actions, altercations and events of these four kids happened exactly as we see them. But based on Gordie’s memories, the tall tales significantly convey the importance of this time on his life as an adult and a father.
Casting Richard Dreyfuss adds even more rich texture to the film. Sure his nasally radio voice has a soothing effect on our ears. But his mere presence connects us to one of the film’s antecedents, American Graffiti, a similar film recalling the same era told with the same style of embellished nostalgia. Stand By Me stands tall beside George Lucas's own celebrated masterpiece.
Stand By Me is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment