I started to tell the story of Stand by Me to a friend the other day, and after I’d gotten through a few sentences’ worth of description, she stopped me. “That’s the third time you’ve used the phrase ‘really neat,’” she said. She was right.
I will do what I can to avoid the phrase, but blast it, Stand by Me is really neat. And it’s something more than that, too.
Rob Reiner directed the film, his third in what should be a long and fruitful career. (The first two were This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, both utter delights. Once upon a time, he played Meathead on “All in the Family.”) Reiner’s source is unexpected: Stand by Me is adapted from a novella called The Body, by Stephen King.
Stephen King? Then why don’t the TV commercials for this movie have King leering into the camera and saying, “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”? Well, it’s not that kind of Stephen King. In fact, The Body (which, after filming, was given its vague new title) is a nostalgic non-horror story that turns on a simply beautiful idea.
One summer day in 1959, much like any other in Castle Rock, Ore., a kid overhears two older boys talking about a dead body they spotted some miles away, by the railroad tracks. They didn’t report it, because they were out there doing something illicit.
They know who the corpse is (was?); the missing boy they’ve all been hearing about on the radio.
The young eavesdropper runs to his buddies back at the treehouse. Wouldn’t it be neat to go see that dead body? They’ve never seen one before. Besides, it would be a fun overnight camping trip through the forest.
Out they go, and the rest of the film is their journey. The movie’s main weakness is that this is all too clearly a major rite of passages for the boys. It’s the moment when the two maturing kids will pull irrevocably past the two more childish ones. But the trip itself is so enjoyable, and so rich in deeply felt detail, that the glaringly symbolic nature of the odyssey doesn’t hamstring things.
The script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans utilizes salty dialogue and a grasp of the stuff that matters when you’re very young (the best food in the world, it is decided, is cherry-flavored Pez).
The story is set in a flashback, told by a writer—a cameo, and a very nice one, by Richard Dreyfuss—who was the brightest, most imaginative of the boys. During the forest trek, he (played by Wil Wheaton) comes to terms with the recent death of his idealized older brother (John Cusack, star of The Sure Thing). In a weird way, seeing the body of a dead kid by the railroad tracks helps him.
The other boys are played by River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, and all are fine. Kiefer Sutherland, Donald’s son, does good mean work as the leader of the toughs who found the body in the first place. The toughs, by the way, swig Rainier beer. Reiner gets the details right.
It’s not a perfect or great film; Reiner might have pruned some of the more touchy-feely dialogue, which 12-year-olds were probably not spouting in 1959. But it’s consistently good, and certain images—a deer in the night, the sound of a train that might just be approaching as the boys walk across a trestle—are for keeps. In short, this movie is really, really—no, I won’t say it again. But you know what I mean.
First published in the Herald, August 1986
The change probably helped the movie’s fortunes, but The Body would have been an excellent title. It’s got the plainness of a classic Ray Bradbury title, and the material is of course very Bradburyesque in its understanding of stuff that actually matters to children. I’m not sure how neat I would find this movie today, although it might be interesting to watch it knowing how the lives of its young actors turned out.