Photo: ‘Stand By Me’ – Left to Right: Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’connell, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix/Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
It is a testament to the brilliance of ‘Stand By Me’, that decades after its release, this River Phoenix-starrer continues to be celebrated all over the world.
In another unsuccessful attempt to find his precious stock of penny savings, twelve-year-old Vern Tessio eavesdrops on his brother and his friend while hidden under the deck of his home, surrounded by several holes dug from weeks prior. He comes to find that the dead body of the missing boy named Ray Brower was spotted near the train tracks. His brother, not wanting to relay this information to authorities due to some thievery and paranoia, tries to keep this secret from getting out. Vern, on the other hand, runs immediately (knees caked with dirt from his treasure hunt) to his friends’ treehouse to give them the scoop.
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‘Stand By Me’
Gordie Lachance wants to be a writer, but can’t escape the reputation as the lesser version of his old brother–an athlete who was well known in the town as an esteemed football star. After recently losing him in a fatal car accident, Gordie feels alienated from his parents and the people in the town–lacking the supportive resources to process such a harrowing incident. Chris Chambers, perhaps the only true resource of genuine support Gordie has, is the small town’s bad seed. With a pack of cigarettes rolled in his sleeve and a knack for running into trouble, Chris mulishly inherits the rebellious reputation of a sour bloodline. Taking after his insolent brother and stained by his family name, Chris struggles to offer the beauty of his nurturing heart and intellect to the world, helplessly leaning into his budding karmic image.
Teddy Duchamp, sporting a roasted ear burnt to a melted heap by his own father’s hand, is another product of the town’s reduction–the spawn of a loony–whose destiny fringes somewhere between criminality and carrying out his father’s mental illness down the proverbial gene pool. Given the small town’s cold-shoulder, these four displaced pre-teens form a fellowship beyond their pre-arranged identities. After a spacey Vern spills the beans about the dead body, the boys decide to make an adventure out of it, planning a two-day long journey to find the body of Ray Brower–cashing in on the hero status for finding/returning it.
I applaud these young actors, as they are incredibly gifted and showcase impressive talent, accessing a wide range of emotions. It features Wil Wheaton as Gordie, River Phoenix as Chris Chambers, Corey Feldman as Teddy Duchamp, Jerry O’ Connell as Vern Tessio, and Keifer Sutherland as the antagonist, Ace Merrill.
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Inertia and The Fear of Becoming
Richard Dreyfuss is an incredible narrator and powers the engine of the story. Directed by Rob Reiner, adapted by Raynold Gideon/Bruce A. Evans, and based on the novella ‘The Body’ by Stephen King, this narrative differs from his other works as it seems to be more rooted in realistic themes in contrast to his other fiction pieces, which tend to lean more heavily into the world of the supernatural. Yet, it still carries the residue of his twisted worlds, infusing his special spiciness into the recipe of this realistic plot. It makes for an elemental cuisine though, as it lines the borders of possibility with a special magic–the kind of unobscured hope and imagination conceivable only through the lens of the youth. However, these youths are nonetheless haunted by psychological poltergeists.
In a small town of only around twelve hundred people, it’s hard to reimagine your identity once people have already begun the process for you. Some of King’s creepiness forms clusters in the corners of this story by introducing the fear of ancestral karma. It’s already hard to wrestle with the reality of growing older–having to accept (while also repressing) the responsibilities of adulthood, tackle the beast of self-reliance, and confront the reality of death. It takes forever to learn, and honestly most of us never really get the hang of it.
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Some of this can be exciting too, as if you’re edging the brink of some deeper truth you can only get a whiff of. Nonetheless, it’s alarming to emerge into the momentous landscape of adulthood and recognize that the metaphorical “solids” in your life have changed function–likewise, liquids turn to gasses, gases to solids, and solids to steam. The impermanence of reality is more prevalent as you age, which can feel paralyzing and jarring.
As if this introduction into teenhood and adulthood wasn’t enough of a challenge, ‘Stand By Me’ kind of amplifies this realistic horror by introducing each character with an epigenetic presentiment. Imagine you were a machine, your lever already winded–you’re headed straight for a cliff that your body was wired to walk off of, and you are responsible to force your internal gears in the opposite direction. It’s intimidating, and requires strength and awareness.
Each character deals with this, and their battles are clear, leaning in and out of the predetermined prisons elected by their peers and passed down by their parents. Gordie walks in the shadow of his brother, who was the only one, besides Chris, who recognized his talent for writing and believed in him. His death was the birth of his unworthiness, which was already brooding in his unconscious heart as his father praised his favorite son, the football star.
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Along with his brother’s death, his belief in himself died along with him. He fell into the echo of his father’s expectations, which would never be enough. His father’s own insecurities and desire for validation would pervade through his own self-perception. If left to its own inertia without pivot, Gordie would fulfill his prophecy as the lesser brother who was deemed to fail, neglecting to nurture his craft and intellect.
Chris would have become a delinquent, forever untrusting the integrity of authority, and never leaving their small town of Castle Rock. Teddy would have gone insane, perhaps involved in violent or criminal acts. Vern would go on to not seek a life beyond the one he knew. We know these characters, we have been these characters, we have felt the inertia moving through us. Resistance sometimes feels like death, the death of a long line of patterns that have lingered like parasites through our heritage. Resistance can also, however, can sometimes feel like the birth of something new.
Existence is as chaotic as it is beautiful and tender–but it can often feel as if life shows no mercy, without reason. Like atoms form chemical bonds to make their outer shells more stable, humans conduct a similar waltz. Our friendships often become the stabilizers we use throughout our life, leaning on others and shining a new light for new patterns to form.
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As preteens, we are at the precipice of either breaking or permeating our psychological poltergeists. In physics, the definition of inertia is: “A property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.” Sometimes this external force is friendship. The power of these bonds and forces in our life can not be underplayed enough, they either steer us quicker toward the edge of the cliff, or they act as pivots in our algorithms, steering our levers to new clearings.
These young misfits all had something in common, and their bonds impacted their life trajectory. Though two of these characters may have taken the path of least resistance, a light was placed in their path, and two of them even freed each other from it, going on to become heroes and actualizing their potential. This story is beautifully tender and absolutely silly— equipped with the highlights of youthful adventure, roasted marshmallows, campfire stores, ruthless banter, tough love, and some of the best ‘50s hits. It stands as one of my favorite films, even today.
The brazen grit of adolescence, delicately underlined with the innocence of childhood, both penetrate and unify the dualities that make life coarse and untouchable, to that which make us compassionate, humane, and vulnerable. If we all stood by each other, perhaps we could part from the patterns of destruction that have plagued our society, and instead pave a world that forms stable bonds–creating supportive, tender, loving networks that severe the wires of sabotage with a momentum of love.
I thank my mother, Sherry, for showing me this film when I was just old enough, and just young enough, to internalize its wisdom.
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Melissa McGrath is a writer for Hollywood Insider, offering rich and engaging content for reviews and features. Melissa feels at home with Hollywood Insider’s lively team who share an equal passion for the art of cinema. Having sought out compelling stories her whole life, she is eager to examine and share her observations with others interested in thought-provoking material. She believes in changing the world through meaningful dialogue and hopes to provide helpful insight with her work. She values open discussions concerning morality, culture, personal development, and holds a soft spot for cathartic humor. Through the art of storytelling, journalism, and cinema, Melissa seeks to help build a strong community of free-thinkers and cultivate a deeper understanding of the human experience.