By Marc S. Sanders
I’m not embarrassed to say it. I’ve experienced a mid-life crisis. Last night, I watched Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, and I absolutely broke down in tears when it finished. As I approach age 50 later this year, the most recent viewing of this film alerted me that my childhood memories are further away than I ever realized before.
Reiner lifts this coming-of-age story from Stephen King’s novella entitled The Body. Four boys spend the long and hot dog days of summer in Castle Rock, Oregon (it was Maine in King’s story) in their tree house smoking cigarettes and discussing important topics like Annette Funnicello’s breast size on The Mickey Mouse Club and the recent disappearance of a twelve-year-old kid. Yackety Yak and Lollipop play on their transistor radio in the background. The wimpiest one of the pack, Vern (Jerry O’Connell), overhears the location of the kid’s body is off the side of the railroad tracks, about twenty miles away. Teddy (Corey Feldman), along with best friends Chris (River Phoenix) and Gordon (Wil Wheaton) decide to embark on the search for the body and get their picture in the paper, labeled as heroes. It’ll take them the Labor Day weekend to carry out their quest.
During their long journey across the railroad tracks into the woods, the four boys will discover what concerns them, like figuring out if Goofy is a dog and who could win in a fight; Superman or Mighty Mouse. As well, they’ll uncover what gives them anxiety ahead of their entry into adulthood. Gordon lives with being unloved by his parents both before and following the accidental death of his older brother (John Cusack). Chris lives with being unfairly labeled as a young hoodlum. Teddy endures the aftermath of an abusive military father currently living in the looney bin. Vern suffers from a hesitancy to live for adventure and risk due to ongoing fear. These boys had a future that awaited, but for some it seemed like there was no escaping the destiny the locals of their small town had already mapped out for them.
In the last few years, I reconnected with a childhood friend by means of social media. Visiting New York City annually over a three-year period, I got to see Scott in person and recollect on our times together. It had been over thirty years since we had seen or spoken with one another. We reminisced about tormenting the substitute teachers, and our first crushes. We reflected on favorite movie scenes that we acted out in between classes. We are different now, though. Nowhere near the same as we were at age 12. We have families and careers and responsibilities. Yet, our memories of trading comic books, talking dirty, going to movies, and acting out cops and robbers shoot outs in the backyard all remain.
When Stand By Me opens, a present day adult (Richard Dreyfuss) is shown reflecting in the distance following reading an article about a lawyer who was killed in a restaurant. This narrator then flashes us back to the year 1959 when this adventure between him and his three friends occurred. One of those friends was the lawyer who was killed. A piece of his history has ceased to live and continue on. That terrifies me personally. Friends, and family, and people I’ve encountered over my half century will leave my presence, never to be seen or spoken to again. I’ll never get the opportunity to reflect with them again, much less make new memories. I’m now living in an age where Facebook comments seem to weekly consist of saying “very sorry for your loss.” Friends are losing their parents. Some are passing away themselves.
Stand By Me might not be altogether realistic. The boys are getting overpowered by a sinister Kiefer Sutherland, who’s not afraid to use a switch blade and cut one of the kids’ throats. King’s story also feels like an elevated Hardy Boys or Tom Sawyer kind of adventure. I don’t know of anyone who went looking for a mutilated corpse during my summer days living in Wyckoff, New Jersey. The adventure conceived by Stephen King serves as a thrill that you imagine as you read it off of the page. My upbringing consisted of play dates and sleepovers with Scott, Star Wars toys and Saturday morning cartoons. Yet, the connections that thread the main story together are what’s to treasure in Rob Reiner’s film. The friends we make in grade school before becoming interested in high school, alcohol, sex, and career planning, are the most important people we know and first encounter in our lifetimes. It’s impossible to forget them or the impact they had on our lives. Scott certainly had an impact on my life. I credit my sense of humor to him, and his carefree attitude to the ugliness of this world. Sometimes that’s all we have to survive.
King and Reiner use the body that is being sought as a device to drive the characters. What’s going to bring these boys together with no outside influence? How can young Gordon deliver his revered sense of imagination as the writer he’s to become? The best way is to put the boys around a camp fire. Gordon can then entertain his pals with the story of an incredibly fat kid who got his revenge on the locals during a pie eating contest that results in a massive “Barforama.” It’s silly and sophomoric and childish fun, but for 12-year-olds, it’s the best thing imaginable. Teddy dreams of being an army hero storming the beaches of Normandy like his father was rumored to have done. His sleeping bag is his machine gun mowing down an oncoming train. Vern’s favorite food? Watch the movie to find out. Chris might be regarded as the outlaw, but he’s also the most mature, and perhaps the mentor to Gordon who suffers from the loss of the brother he loved, as much as he suffers from the neglect of his mother and father. At age 12, in 1959, Chris was all that Gordon had. I may have had more than Gordon at that age, but whenever I was with Scott, he’s all that I had.
Ultimately, Stand By Me is not an adventure or a silly comedy about boys being boys. It’s a character study of kids just outside of their formative years. It’s a film that captures a single moment before friendships inevitably expire. It’s a reminder to embrace those you’ve treasured over your lifetime, because we cannot be twelve years old forever.