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PopGap #09: Stand by Me (1986)

PopGap #09: Stand by Me (1986)

Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by dorrk
27 September 2015

The Flickchart Top 250: 9 left to go

My Flickchart Rank: #249
Global Flickchart Rank: #86

I don't know how many times I watched Stand By Me within the few years after it was released. I turned 14 in 1986, and I'm sure I saw it in the movie theater and, then, again later on VHS and cable. While it's never been one of my favorite movies — I don't think I watched it a lot — I associate it closely with my own juvenile years. It's been well over 20 years since the last time I watched it. In fact, it's been almost the same span of time between my two most recents viewings of Stand By Me as occurred in the movie between the narration and the adventure it recalls from the summer of 1959. Thinking back to that time — the time I watched a group of friends hike along the railroad tracks to see a dead body — makes me wonder if I've ever seen better movies than I did when I was 14. Jesus, does anyone?

Actually, I was not expecting to like Stand By Me as much this time around. I assumed that it would be mired in a maudlin sentimentality that I may not have minded as a kid but often reject in movies as an adult. I'm also a bit jaded now about the oversaturation of baby boomer nostalgia that I endured as a teenager, and my recent viewing of The Sandlot did not prime me for another trip down the sun-dappled oldies-soundtracked memory lane of my parents' generation. But, it turns out, Stand By Me is still great. Even though it walks a fairly well-trod path toward a goal that is now overplayed, it's navigated by four genuine performances that sidestep all the pitfalls into which it could have easily stumbled.

Based on a short story by Stephen King, Stand By Me is framed as a reminiscence by a writer (Richard Dreyfuss) upon learning that one of his childhood friends has been murdered. the sad news takes him back the summer of 1959, when the boys were 12, and the two days they spent with their two other closest friends on a memorable coming-of-age quest. Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell are all natural, whether engaging in reckless hijinks, having vulnerable moments of awkward insecurity, or debating 1950s pop culture. These four adolescents carry the entire film and rarely let a false note sneak by.

Rob Reiner directed Stand By Me in the middle of an incredible streak of enduring successes during the 1980s, which began with This is Spinal Tap and concluded with Misery. the most remarkable aspect of this rally was that at no point did Reiner impose a directorial style; his style was to pick great stories and stay out of the way as they unfold. That approach works perfectly for Stand By Me. Where other directors might have tried to milk the nostalgia or embellish emotional moments, Reiner's anonymous restraint provides a natural canvas for small moments to have real meaning without an overbearing sense self-importance. Very few of the cliches of this often precious genre feel trite in Reiner's hands, which is astounding, given King's tendency to lean on certain comfortably outworn tropes.

This is not to say that Reiner did nothing, of course. He's superb at eliciting organic performances and the comic timing and sensibility of his early movies was near-perfect. He is simply a rare "invisible" director who still managed to crank out a series of classic movies in a variety of genres, and Stand By Me is one of his best.

Keifer Sutherland and John Cusack also appear in small roles.

PopGap #09: Stand by Me (1986)

Trailer for Stand by Me (1986)