Sunday, May 15, 2011

Stephen King Month: Stand by Me (1986)

Stand by Me is the first movie to show the more serious, dramatic side of Stephen King's work, although fans of his prose were already familiar with the novellas in Different Seasons (of which The Body, the source material for Stand by Me, is one) and King's Richard Bachman books, all of which show a greater range than the "master of horror" that had been presented to movie audiences. Although it's a bittersweet coming-of-age story, Stand by Me still features a lot of King's favorite themes, including nostalgia, the lifelong bond forged among childhood friends and, of course, the unfortunate town of Castle Rock, where some kid getting hit by a train and having his body rot in the woods is one of the less gruesome occurrences.

That dead kid is the catalyst for the story, which takes place in 1959 and finds a quartet of 12-year-old boys setting out to see the kid's body, after one of them overhears his older brother talking about the body's location. It's a morbid motivation for bonding, but director Rob Reiner balances things out well, keeping the tone light for the most part, and earning the sentimental moments. He eases up on some of the darker turns of King's story, and suffuses the movie with familiar pop music of the time period. The novella may be more about lost innocence (its subtitle is Fall From Innocence) and the cruelty of fate, but the movie focuses on the magic of childhood and the way that it continues to influence people as they become adults.

Reiner's real secret weapon here is his cast, with the four main stars giving some of the best child performances of all time. It's sad that none of them ever went on to greatness -- River Phoenix died young, Corey Feldman descended into drugs and reality TV, Wil Wheaton mostly retired from acting and Jerry O'Connell pursued a solid but undistinguished career. This movie may actually represent the best performances any of them ever gave, beautifully capturing the uncertainty and anguish of that moment between childhood and adolescence, of realizing that the world is a harsh and unforgiving place and even your friends may not be able to help you through it. Phoenix's performance is especially poignant as he reveals the insecurity behind the tough exterior of his character. The bonding among the four feels real and significant, and that's the movie's greatest achievement.

There are other things it doesn't do as well: The antagonists, led by Kiefer Sutherland as the town's head thug, are pretty one-dimensional, and their scenes away from the main characters only paint them as silly stereotypes. And one of the movie's centerpieces is a dramatization of a story told by Gordie (Wheaton), an aspiring writer whose adult self (Richard Dreyfuss) narrates the movie. That silly tale, about a fat kid taking revenge on his tormentors, seems out of place, and since the point of it is to demonstrate Gordie's skill at spinning a story, it's odd to watch it play out rather than hear it.

Even that little bit is reasonably entertaining, though, and the movie remains enjoyable throughout, whether it's portraying meaningful truths about childhood or just having goofy fun with Sutherland's Ace and his goons knocking over mailboxes. The success of Stand by Me paved the way for a whole bunch of prestige King adaptations, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. But the movie itself is lovely and affecting, and an important showcase for King's range.

How far to Castle Rock: As mentioned, the whole movie takes place in Castle Rock, although Reiner moves the town from Maine to Oregon (where the movie was shot). Reiner subsequently named his production company Castle Rock Entertainment.

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