Right Of Passage: Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) – the Friday Classic review
The benchmark of all rites of passage movies – funny, wistful and life-affirming. Watching it should be a rite of passage in itself.
Stand By Me
(Rob Reiner, US, 1986)
That kids’ films are often so patronising is a real surprise when you consider that the people who make them were once kids themselves. Perhaps it is because the reality of childhood is a messy, complex affair – equally painful, exhilarating, scary and life-affirming – that adults tend to switch on a safety valve whenever they try to communicate with the young, in order to try and protect them from that kind of mirror.
It takes a film Stand By Me to redress the balance. It’s fortunate that, in essence, this isn’t really a film aimed at children at all – but a nostalgic elegy for the loss of childhood aimed at adults. By approaching the genre from this angle, it becomes probably the finest statement on the subject that Hollywood has delivered: a tough/tender vision of excitement, exuberance and the doubts of self-worth and fear that mark the passage to adulthood.
It’s emotionally flawless, with a maturity that nearly all conventional Stephen King adaptations cannot locate (the only other King flick that comes close is The Shawshank Redemption, funnily enough based on a short story from the same, non-horror collection as this film). The combination of indelible, iconic adventures (the train, the leeches) and aimless chatter drives more serious contemplation, but it’s never bleak or maudlin, just honest – in a way that few Hollywood movies are – about human nature.
Given the preoccupations of its author, Stand By Me is a very writerly film, with events enhanced with copious flashback and voiceover. But it’s pure cinema, technically superb, and directed by a man at the peak of his powers. It is Rob Reiner’s misfortune to have been born too late for the studio system, where his sense of pace, narrative and observation would probably have seen him become a lauded figure. As it is, he is terminally underrated, largely because his laidback, classical style lacks the pizzazz of contemporaries like James Cameron or Robert Zemeckis. But this remains gorgeous, with its woozy, sunlit visuals, graceful long takes perfectly attuned to the leisurely pace of the kids’ road trip, and the brilliantly edited cut-and-thrust of the kids‘ sparring. And Reiner is a natural with actors, coaxing four equally strong performances from the young leads.
The film’s elegiac core burns all the brighter for knowing that this was the high-point for all concerned, with the exception of supporting players John Cusack and Kiefer Sutherland. Reiner’s brand of old-fashioned humanism is out of place nowadays when the vogue is for tricksier narrative and visual styles. And the actors‘ careers, in an uncanny parallel of their characters’ futures, never really took off. River Phoenix, like Chris Chambers, died too young. Corey Feldman, with numerous brushes with the law, effectively turned into the hot-headed Teddy Duchamp. Jerry O’Connell sacrificed his comic talent to become a humourless hunk, just as Vern ends up in the lumber yard. And even Wil Wheaton, post Star Trek, seems to be known nowadays more for his writing – in the form of a blog – than his acting.