I first saw “Stand By Me” in my high school health class. So as not to offend our delicate sensibilities (or more likely, our parents’), we saw the edited version, which removed such obscenities as “ass.” Which, because one of the characters’ names included this, must have taken awhile. I remember enjoying this movie a lot more than “Beaches,” which we also saw. I also remember that one of the questions on our follow-up test was something like, “Name two ways in which Gordie and Chris were more mature than Teddy and Vern.” (That was one of my easier A’s.)
“Stand By Me,” based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King, takes place on the last day of summer vacation in 1959 in Castle Rock, Oregon. The narrator Gordie (Wil Wheaton), and his friends, delinquent-in-training Chris (River Phoneix) and crazy Teddy (Corey Feldman) are playing cards in their clubhouse, when they get an unexpected invitation from their other dweeby, overly earnest pal, Vern (Jerry O’Connell). “You guys wanna go see a dead body?” he asks. It turns out that a boy their age has been hit by a train and is, in fact, dead. Jerry happens upon this piece of juicy info, when he’s under his porch, searching for his buried penny jar. His older brother and his gang (which includes Chris’s delinquent older brother) have made plans to go see the corpse, as well. This triggers Wil’s and his friends’ competitive instincts, too, and so off they set on an overnight trip.
You might be wondering, if you’ve never seen the movie, how they are going to get around their parents. Well, there’s no real need to worry because three of the four boys have major father issues, and their dads probably won’t notice that they’ve disappeared for awhile. As for Jerry, he can just use the sleepover excuse, and no one will be any the wiser. So the boys each go home for supplies, and that’s when we learn that Wil’s parents barely register that he exists (except in the case of dad, to criticize his friends) because they’re busy mourning their dead, older son (John Cusack), who was the family superstar. Wil takes a canteen and the cap that his brother gave him, while Jerry brings along a comb (“So we’ll look good on TV!”). River contributes a gun, which turns out to be loaded, and which, following Chekov’s rule, becomes crucial in the climax.
The boys set off – and this is not a movie in which the characters manage to maintain un-mussed hair, unrumpled clothes, etc. – they all quickly become grimy and stay like this the entire way. (A side trip into a leech filled swamp will also contribute to their general disarray.) Meanwhile the older boys go joyriding in the same direction, whacking the occasional mailbox on the way. Wil’s group also engages in some juvenile delinquency (mouthing off to a junkyard owner, scaring the daylights out of a train driver, etc.), but they also devote some time to the profound questions in life, such as what food they would choose if they could only eat one for the rest of their lives. Also, Wil and Chris confide in each other about their parents’ (and society’s) non-existent expectations of them, what really happened with the stolen milk money at school, and Wil encourages Chris to enroll in the academic track with him when school starts, which makes what ultimately happens to Chris as an adult (which we hear about in the epilogue) even sadder.
Eventually, the boys reach their destination and have a stand-off with the older boys (Chekov’s law alert). When they return, Wil notes that the town somehow looks smaller, and then we hear, via voiceover, how the group drifts apart, but how “you never have any friends like the ones when you were 12.” It ends with the adult narrator (Richard Dreyfuss) typing these words at his computer, while his young son and friend wait impatiently outside to go swimming. Very true, and as an added bonus, the viewer ends the movie with the sense that the Narrator, despite his lapses into literary reveries, is a different type of father than his own dad.