Both Nostalgia and Darkness are at Hand in ‘Stand by Me’

Rewatching Stand by Me, it occurs to me that the title isn’t quite right. It hits a note of nostalgic brotherhood, to be sure, that vaguely matches the movie’s portrait of almost-teenage friendship and coming of age. But The Body, the title of the Stephen King novella on which the movie is based, is far more evocative, both of the story and its mood. “Stand by Me” makes the movie sound like just another fuzzy Hollywood movie branded with a boomer-friendly song title, and the over-appropriation of that song’s melody for the movie’s score is one of its rare technical missteps.

The switch itself evokes the film’s fascinating mixture of soft-focus Rob Reiner sweetness and King’s darker impulses. The four 12-year-olds at the movie’s center live in a 1959 full of pinkie swears, saving pennies, and campfire stories, but they’re also surrounded by genuinely threatening bullies, distant or even abusive families, and limited opportunities for escape. Death hangs over the movie, not just in the central story hook of four boys going off to find the dead body of a missing boy their age, but in the backstory of Gordie (Wil Wheaton), whose golden-boy older brother has died a few months earlier. A young John Cusack plays the brother in a couple of heartbreaking scenes.

We hear about some of the darkness below the surface in narration provided by Richard Dreyfuss, playing an adult Gordie looking back on his experiences, and the movie uses this device just right: filling in key details and insights, while keeping the dialogue free from too much exposition. It’s not surprising that The Wonder Years used a similar framework just a few years later.

Jarringly, Stand by Me itself is now just a few years short of 1959’s distance at the time of the movie’s original release: the new Blu-Ray release commemorates t25 years, while the theatrical issue looked back just 27. To honor the occasion, Reiner, in addition to an audio commentary, participates in a picture-in-picture reunion video commentary with Wheaton and Corey Feldman, who played the combative Teddy. Sadly, Jerry O’Connell isn’t on hand to comment on his first-ever performance as the chunky, goofy Vern, or his transformation from funny fat kid to buff husband of supermodel Rebecca Romijn (though the commentators do make mention of this, naturally).

Even sadder, of course, is the absence of River Phoenix, who did excellent work as Gordie’s troubled best friend, Chris. It’s Chris’s adult death that causes Gordie to reminisce in the first place, an eerie parallel with Phoenix’s tragic early passing. Most of the video commentary is gabby with anecdotes, but Reiner, Wheaton, and Feldman fall silent during Phoenix’s big scenes, either too moved to speak or too uneasy to speak over him.

The commentaries and retrospectives will be treats for fans, but the simplicity of the movie (which runs just 88-minutes!) is the star here; the near-rural landscapes look gorgeous with the visual upgrade. Reiner has never been a flashy visual stylist — his movies don’t require it — but Stand by Me is strikingly well-composed and, even better, Reiner subtly brings out the movie’s many strengths: the intuitive child performances, the script’s dark edges, and the laughs in between.

Stand by Me came smack in the middle of Reiner’s ’80s renaissance, a remarkable run through comedies in a variety of keys: the satire of This is Spinal Tap; the deft romance of The Sure Thing and When Harry Met Sally…; the witty, spoofy adventure of The Princess Bride; and this movie, his most serious of that decade but still often laugh-out-loud funny in the way it captures the aggression, ribbing, swearing, and broken hearts of just-adolescent boys. Maybe the unfussy ease of this screenplay ruined him for later comedy-drama misfires; as recently as 2010’s Flipped, Reiner was struggling with the correct balance of laughs and unforced sentiment.

Twenty-five years later, nostalgia seems like a more appropriate response than ever, less for 1959 (which Reiner makes both idyllic and depressing) and more for Reiner’s glory in 1986. It’s not often that a coming-of-age story works so well.

RATING 8 / 10
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