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Stand By Me (1986)

Stephen King’s 1982 collection of short stories, Different Seasons, contains four novellas – three of which were eventually put to the big screen. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Apt Pupil (1998) were given movie interpretations with opposing success, but it was the 1986 coming of age film, Stand By Me, that I was compelled to put on this week. This may have had something to do with a certain Netflix television series, and the lingering impression its 80s homages seems to have made on everyone I know that has seen it.

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If you have somehow managed to avoid it (stop and go watch it now if that is the case), Stranger Things is a Netflix supernatural horror series written and directed by the Duffer Brothers. It’s a story of a group of boys and when they come across a girl going by the name of Eleven as they look for their missing friend. The creators unashamedly use its 80s setting to pay faithful homage to works synonymous with that period. Those brilliant nods to Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott, could very easily have made it a forced rip off of their work. Fortunately the Duffer Brothers balance those moments really well with an original story, and framework and pace that’s in keeping with either of those storytellers’ best creations. At its core though are brilliant characters, and that is what Spielberg, King et al did so well too. Having watched Stranger Things (and read about it, and listened to Spotify playlists, and downloaded the score, and… Has season 2 started yet?) I was really keen to feed that yearning for 80s nostalgia. Stranger Things references movies like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, and books such as IT and The Shining, but it was the nods to Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. The film is about a group of young boys in their last summer before starting junior high school, and their adventure through the wilderness in search of a young boy’s dead body.

movie 80s stand by me
Although it’s mostly set in Stephen King’s 1959 Maine, the cast is very much that of the 80s. The young Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack, Corey Feldman, Richard Dreyfuss, Frances Lee McCain and River Phoenix seem to be ever present in 80s classics and it certainly leaves you with that feel of the time. The casting is perfect, with Reiner admitting that he was looking for kids as close to each of the personalities as possible so as not to stretch his young actors. They each feel very real, believable, and even if you weren’t one of those kids you will have known them. Rob Reiner helped create the group’s chemistry by having those kids spend a few months together ahead of filming playing games and building the bonds that are so apparent in the final film. The constant singing of songs, pinky swears, “two for flinching,” and arguments over what animal Goofie is (“The kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls”) bring your own youth flooding back. That chemistry is entertaining throughout but they’re also extremely sensitive and care deeply for each other. Conversations can alternate between arguments over who would win in a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman, to trust, the future, dreams and reaching your potential. Gordie (Wheaton) feels let down by his parents, Chris (Phoenix) is let down by teachers preying on his bad reputation, and each member of the group seek solace and approval from each other. Those relationships are their world, but junior high school and summer finale personify a looming awareness this could be a last hurrah.
 stand by me GIF
It’s almost tragic when the boys pass from a world of innocence to experience. This transition that the characters go on is a gradual one, but the theme of death lingers throughout the story. It opens with Richard Dreyfuss’ brilliant voiceover as he comes across the death of Chris Chambers. Wil Wheaton’s Gordie and his parents struggle to come to terms with the tragic death of his brother (Cusack). And then there is the fact that the story revolved around them going out to find the dead body of a kid hit by a train. The boys seem aware of how this is a peak time in their lives, and of that impending loss of innocence. Unfortunately River Phoenix’s real life tragic death epitomises that theme. His character’s fade out as he walks away to the story of the character’s eventual death seems more poignant for it (“Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever”). His milk money monologue earlier on is absolutely heart breaking, and from this film alone you can see what a tragic loss of life and talent his story was.

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Stephen King has said himself what a personal story this is for him, looking back on his childhood memories and the friendships that fall away as you grow older. I think Rob Reiner got that yearning for a simpler time, and a rite of passage all kids must go through absolutely spot on. The young boys encounter challenges we must all face to some extent, whether that’s the first time they spent time away from home, face something frightening alone, face death, and face dissolution with their parents. Stand By Me is a film I have to watch at least once a year and it gets me every time (the song alone always makes me want to reach for the DVD). It’s a snapshot in time, both of when the film was made, and our own lives, and sometimes it’s nice to look back and remember that. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”


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