As the old adage goes, wine gets better with age. Sugars, acids and substances known as phenolic compounds (including tannins) perform complex chemical reactions, which result in very expensive bottles of what is essentially grape juice. Temperature, humidity, and, of course, time are also key factors in the final product. Oxygen is bad. Bottles have to be kept cool, but not cold. Humidity and The Cork go hand in hand. This is all a very complicated process.
However, not all wines taste better with age, and the miracle—and merits—of aging itself rely heavily on The User. Consumption of all things is a very subjective process, and while some can detect and appreciate all the complex notes of a full bodied, well-aged merlot, others will simply taste red wine, and hate it.
For me, there is no sweeter taste, none richer or more complex, than Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming-of-age masterpiece.
Today, Stand By Me turns 35. Based on The Body, a novella written by Stephen King and published in his 1982 collection Different Seasons, the film was released wide on August 22, 1986, and stars Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and the late, very great River Phoenix, as four friends—Gordie, Teddy, Vern, and Chris, respectively—who set out on a quest to see the dead body of a missing local boy, Ray Brower.
And that’s the plot. Simple, but effective. And like most great coming-of-age stories, the plot quickly recedes into the background as the characters and our connection to them becomes the priority.
Whenever people ask what my favourite film is, there is no hesitation. It is Stand By Me. There is only one piece of artwork in my bedroom, and it is a framed poster for this film. I own various versions of it on DVD and Blu-Ray (Criterion, if you’re out there, let’s do this), and have to turn it off as soon as the credits start rolling because here come the waterworks.
And so, because I have such strong feelings for this film, I have, over the years, developed many different interpretations as to why I love it, but also why it continues to inspire, entertain, and overwhelm. Although many reviewers, writers, and retrospective-ers have, unsurprisingly, called the film nostalgic, I believe that’s a very bland interpretation. It’s not a rose-coloured look at childhood, or growing up, or small town life. It’s a lot more contradictory—and thus, nuanced—than that.
“It happened in the summer of 1959…”
Svetlana Boym writes that nostalgia is both a “sentiment of loss and displacement,” as well as a “romance with one’s own fantasy” of—and for—the past and one’s own life. Michael Kammen writes of nostalgia as “history without guilt”: not only do we remember what we want to remember, we remember the way we want to remember, and this abdicates us of all responsibility for wrongdoing or inappropriateness. You can’t feel guilty if you just remember the good times, or in good ways. Within nostalgia, we actively seek to omit the negative, casting aside the aforementioned nuance for perfection. It is a positive, but it is only a positive insofar as that it omits the negative.
For most people, the act of “nostalgia” is defined by the sentimental recollection of positive memories from one’s past, thus perpetuating the happiness-as-by-product of said recollections. It is, for all intents and purposes, selective memory. And yet, there is clearly a duality to nostalgia, which Stand By Me, in its structure, tone, and overall message, actively celebrates.
Although Stand By Me takes place predominantly in the past (Labor Day weekend in September 1959, to be exact), the film is bookended by scenes from the present, wherein a writer (our narrator and presumably the adult Gordie, played by Richard Dreyfuss), upon reading that his friend Christopher Chambers has been killed, begins telling the story that is Stand By Me.
As I’ve gotten older, my reading of this framing device, and its subsequent effect on the body (…) of the narrative, has changed. I no longer see a man reiterating his version of the story, I see a man who begins telling us a story, but at some point, the story—and its characters—take precedence over his recollection. The story is therefore not entirely defined by The Writer or his ability to accurately remember his last summer as a kid.
This becomes most apparent during the climax, when the boys finally find Ray Brower’s body. Here, the usually eloquent, at times existential, but always personal narration takes on a decidedly clinical air: no longer focussed on self-reflection or feeling, it stands in sharp contrast to the rest of The Writer’s dialogue, and instead relates what the images already show: Ray Brower is dead. The Writer doesn’t offer deeper insight or understanding; he doesn’t philosophize or sentimentalize, he simply tells, and that’s not what we’ve been presented up to this point. There is no opinion, it just is what it is: a kid has died, and here he is.
And yet, during this section, Gordie noticeably begins to change, to grow. He is forced to confront not only the bullies who are also after Brower’s body for a reward, but the trauma of losing his big brother Denny (John Cusack), a hero to him. Gordie immediately connects to Ray Brower, and yet the narrator only offers a cold remark about his Keds being knocked off. It’s a jarring juxtaposition. The Writer can’t bring himself to tell us how he really felt in this moment, nor how he remembers feeling, and because he’s unsure, he doesn’t speak, letting the images do the “talking” for him.
During the big confrontation, when Gordie threatens death on Ace (Kiefer Sutherland) if he touches Brower’s, it becomes clear that Gordie is willing to risk his own safety for the safety of this body, a body which, up until this point, has been nothing more than an object to be gawked at and then turned in for a reward. A point of exchange, little more than a thing. But here, in this moment, Gordie recognizes that this was someone’s son, someone’s brother or nephew or cousin. A person. A living being, just like his brother. Brower’s untimely, violent death, so far away from home and his loved ones, does not mean that he’s not worthy of respect or remembrance. He means something to someone, just like Denny meant the world to Gordie. And in this moment, the body is no longer an object: dead or alive, Ray Brower is, was, and always will be a person. He can’t be traded in for money—he shouldn’t be!—and Gordie saves him from this fate. When The Writer stops narrating, it’s because he knows we must see Gordie change and confront and fight. Reiner thus places the burden of recollection on the images themselves, protecting the narrator while letting the images carry the weight of the past.
The Writer/Adult Gordie wants to remember his friends in their moments of beauty, heroism and humour, but his own moments of grief, of anger and uncontrolled emotion, those moments are harder to recollect, to discuss, to admit—a sentiment true for us all. And so, his nostalgia remains firm, but we know, just like all nostalgia, that it is curated. The images are the unannotated truth, while his voice is the memory. Even when he speaks during these moments, it becomes objective, more akin to a news report than wistful reminiscence.
It’s perfectly acceptable to favour the good times, the best times, the golden ones. Robert Frost thought so too, but he also knew that all fine things must come to an end. And this is why the “rose-coloured” nostalgic reading breaks down. There is nothing sentimental about this section, and the narrator doesn’t seem to want to return to this moment. This is the moment where his childhood ended, where his final shreds of innocence—the last ones that remained after his brother died—are swept away. This is the moment when he grows up.
But herein lies the irony: this is also the most important moment in the film. When the boys finally see Ray Brower’s lifeless body, they aren’t forced to confront death. Instead, they must confront life, in all its ugliness and splendour.
And this is why I love this film.
“Not if I see you first.”
I don’t remember exactly the first time I watched Stand By Me. It was probably on TBS Superstation at noon on a Saturday. There’s a reference to it in the original Pokémon games, which I understood, and I bought the game in August ’99, so it must have been some time before that.
I don’t love this film because of some unrequited love for adventure and days gone by. Instead, I love Stand By Me because it is honest. It shows both sides of the world, of childhood and youth and memory and friendship. It doesn’t rely on clichés but actively denies them, rejects them, devours them. It is filled with all the juxtapositions that childhood has to offer: it is crude, gentle, vulgar, sensitive, disgusting, and sincere…and usually all at once. It is violent and dark and morbid, and yet it is still fun. It has to be: these kids are 12 years old! There is a Joy that actively challenges the Sad, and neither is given precedence.
I’ve heard this film described as a “boy’s film,” or, even worse, a film for boys, which I always find to be reductionist and uninspired. Stand By Me is no more a “boy’s film” than Now and Then is a “girl’s film.” Classifying either film (or any film, for that matter) under these gendered, misguided categories is ludicrous because films do not embrace such demarcations, people do. Uncreative people. People who need to make these distinctions because they don’t see the subtlety, the metaphor, or the purpose. Stand By Me is for everyone. Now and Then is for everyone. Any film is for anyone who sees something in it, who finds something in it that captures their attention.
Roland Barthes spoke of the punctum, the one part or detail of any photo that captures the viewer—“pierces” or “pricks” them; is, as Barthes puts it, “poignant” to the viewer—and gives that work meaning to the person observing it, regardless of how it is culturally codified. If you experience this punctum in a photograph, or, in this case, a film, it will speak to you, regardless of style, purpose, genre, characterization, or anything else that may be ascribed to it. Remember, art was, is, and always will be subjective. If a piece of art speaks to you, it speaks to you, end of story. Full stop. Goodbye.
And Stand By Me speaks to me. Every point, every moment, every frame pierces me to the core. These characters live. To me, they are not simplistic manifestations from some authors mind: they are alive. You feel their hurt and their jokes, their pain and their friendship; you feel the trauma and the camaraderie. And most importantly, you feel their love. My eyes actively burn as I write this because Stand By Me holds such powerful connotations for what life is, not just in terms of youth or being 12, but everything. The whole damn cosmic, tangible, philosophical, fucked up everything of it all. It is a film so insurmountable that lovers have been rejected for their ambivalence towards it. In terms of cinema, it is the hill I die on because to me, it is Everest and Marianas Trench.
It is heartache and elation, wrath and peace, wonder and truth.
It is nostalgia in all its cruel, brilliant, beautiful, contradictory forms.
And it is my favourite film.
Happy Birthday, old friend. Here’s to a life richer with you in it.
Other That Shelf writers weigh in:
Why it’s taken me this long to watch Stand By Me I’ll never know. It’s reputation as a quintessential coming-of-age tale is well deserved. An amazing snapshot of a simpler time in the world when kids could go off on an adventure and enjoy all that summer has to offer. What strikes me most is the balance Stand By Me achieves. It’s an incredibly mature and thoughtful movie dealing with some pretty dark issues like absent parents, insecurities, and death. And yet, there are delightful moments of pure youthful joy, like name calling, gentle teasing, and playful brawling. (“Great, spit at the fat kid! Real good!” is an all-time line).
For all that I love about the movie, I can’t shake the bittersweet cloud that hangs over it today. I’ve only ever seen River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, and while he’s obviously tremendous as Mikey Waters, seeing him as such a young kid is a little heartbreaking. Chris’s character arc takes on a different level of emotion than when it was released, and lines like, “He won’t live to 20” feel especially heavy.
There’s also a bit of sadness watching Stand By Me in the world we currently live in. The carefree nature of 1959 is long gone, but Stand By Me is a sobering reminder of the last two summers lost. Us older folks might not feel it as much, but for the pre-teens of today, it’s missed adventures and maybe even missed friendships.
Stand By Me is certainly a movie that hits harder as we age. It’s a reminder of our childhoods in a simpler time, and our optimism for future generations. This movie passed me by as a kid, but I can confidently say, it’ll be an annual summer watch from here on out.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
The closing line of Stand By Me is also the definitive line of the film. It’s a film coloured by nostalgia, where an adult remembers a bygone time when friendships were easy, affection was plentiful, and you knew you were always going to see your buds again.
Watching the film as a child, it is difficult to relate to Richard Dreyfuss’s narrator, but watch Stand By Me again a few decades later, and the message becomes clear: it’s about the disconnect that occurs when life’s cornerstone moments are made. We know these are the moments to treasure for the rest of our lives as they happen, yet we’re too stuck on trying to memorialize the event as it happens, preventing us from living in them fully.
Thank you to Rachel Ho and Colin Biggs for contributing to this article, and go check out Black Hole Films discussing the film in 2019.
Now please, go watch Stand By Me, and celebrate 35 years of perfection.