I look back on it as the richest experience of making a film.
— Kiefer Sutherland, “Walking the Tracks: The Summer of Stand By Me“
I’m in the prime of my youth and I’ll only be young once.
— Teddy (Corey Feldman)
Don’t be fooled: Stand By Me‘s new Deluxe Edition DVD is anything but. As it stands, this new edition is the exact same disc with the exact same extras as the “Special Edition” released three years ago. The only difference here is new artwork and the addition of a booklet and CD sampler. If they’d just waited until next year, Columbia could have splashed “20th Anniversary Edition” across the front of the box and no one would have felt even slightly duped.
Then again, Stand By Me is always worth celebrating. It’s a film about finding strength through the unconditional bonds of childhood friendship, and is just as affecting whether watching it 19 or 20 years after its release. Four friends, studious Gordie (Wil Wheaton), tough Chris (River Phoenix), joker Teddy (Corey Feldman) and skittish Vern (Jerry O’Connell) embark on what they expect will be a riotous overnight trip through the backwoods of Oregon to see a dead body on some railway tracks. The journey begins happily enough — “This is really a good time,” notes Vern at one point — but as they walk those tracks, frailties float to the surface, along with the scary realization that growing up is not all good times.
“Most stories — good stories — about boys are stories about journeys,” says Stephen King in the DVD’s great documentary, “Walking the Tracks: The Summer of Stand By Me.” And most King stories, especially those involving boys, are also about those frailties of growing up, and the parts they play in later life. Accordingly, King’s story isn’t a happy one, and Reiner’s film retains this gloominess. At times, the film is really an indictment of adult unconcern for kids and the very “adult” journeys they themselves must take while young. “You’re just a kid, Gordie,” Chris tells his friend in one instance, driving home the notion that comfort, even of the parental kind, comes to Gordie through this friend he looks up to.
This idea of realizing — to a degree — the complexities of adulthood within childhood and the effects of this most problematic of human transitions is at the core of this film. Each of these four kids — with the possible exception of Vern — undergo moments of genuine emotional transformation in the film. This is especially true for Gordie, who learns, only by looking back over the years (Richard Dreyfuss narrates the film and appears briefly as the adult Gordie), that the biggest lesson, the strength gained from childhood friends, experiencing the same changes as you in the same innocent time, is impossible to replicate in adulthood. The film doesn’t triumph youth. Instead, it confronts the pain of childhood directly, without manufacturing the sympathy afforded his characters through some poor-me kind of sentimentality.
Reiner’s handling of the identity struggles these kids endure, and the confusion of familial positions and expectations is remarkably subtle. Gordie, for example, experiences neglect at the hands of his parents due to their inability to cope with the death of his older brother. Gordie quietly relates these instances of neglect, with understated emotion, at one point calmly responding as his detached father indirectly piles on the guilt, highlighting the kid’s apparent inadequacies as a son by asking, “Why can’t you have friends like Denny’s?”
It’s a similar scenario when Chris, a tough guy from a tough family, must confront the devastating effects of manipulation at the hands of an authority figure. Blamed for stealing school money even after he has retuned it to a teacher, Chris reveals the softness behind his tough façade, confessing to Gordie that his family’s influence is destroying him. Again, the incident is recounted quietly, with Chris’s intensity slowly building, but remaining tightly controlled even after he breaks into tears. The tears force their way out of Chris, so obviously afraid of letting them out on their own — something Gordie, a more emotional character, has no trouble doing later on.
It’s a poignant thing to watch, and the DVD reveals Reiner’s capabilities as a director and storyteller as the reason behind it. “I found my own way into it through my own personal experience,” Reiner says, in “Walking the Tracks.” He reveals his own reaction to King’s story and his desire to explore his own need to seek approval from his father as his reason for making Gordie the focus and hero of the film, differing slightly from King’s original idea, which places Gordie as observer of Chris, King’s “tragic hero.”
The documentary is a perfect companion to the film. In it, Reiner and King, along with stars Wheaton, Feldman, O’Connell and Sutherland, discuss the film’s pivotal scenes, including Chris’s break down, Gordie’s break down which occurs at the end of the film when he finally confronts his father’s ill-treatment of him, as well as more lighthearted moments — the leech scene, the trestle-crossing scene. Wheaton and O’Connell are especially fun to listen to, commenting on everything from Sutherland’s “menacing” vibe on set to Reiner’s careful consideration of their limits as young actors, and how he used their own vulnerabilities to rip these masterful performances form them. Phoenix’s performance is especially praised: “When he made a choice to do something,” Sutherland recounts in his soft, serious drawl, “he followed through with it with a sincerity that was captivating.”
Reiner’s commentary track revisits much of what is explored in the documentary, but also talks the audience through some of the more technical aspects of the production, such as certain lighting choices he made to evoke memories. It’s always a challenge to listen to a Reiner’s commentary though, purely because he uses it to introduce scenes, rather than simply discuss the film throughout. His approach is informative, but it can be frustrating because of the lengthy silences as scenes play out. He’s all business, too, with almost no on-set tidbits or funny stories. He also suffers from terrible repetition, letting his audience know about 10 times that certain dialogue used in the film is “taken from conversations we had as kids.” Nevertheless, when he does get going, he opens doors into the film, giving insight as only a writer, actor and director can, noting specific reasons for creative choices pertaining to all three elements.
Reiner’s influence floods Stand By Me, because of his close association with the time period and to Gordie’s plight as a boy in need of fatherly guidance. “It’s all about your little boy who doesn’t feel good about himself, who’s looking for approval, can’t find it from his father, and looks to his friends to be bolstered and feel good about himself,” Reiner says. Watching Gordie at the end of the film, how good he feels about himself isn’t as important as knowing that he learned something from his friend Chris, the least likely of teachers.