Director: Rob Reiner
Original Release: 1986
My Overall Rating: 5 stars out of 5
It was the summer of 1986. I had just endured the seventh grade, quite possibly the most difficult year of my entire life. Not only was I attending a new school but most of the friends I'd had in elementary school went to entirely different junior high schools. To be completely honest, I was at the wrong end of the pecking order at my old school, too. The long-term outlook was not exactly encouraging.
But the summer of 1986 changed everything for me. The most obvious changes were physical. I grew six inches. When you're 13, the difference between 5' and 5'6" is a lot more than half a foot. My voice dropped an octave, too.
I was growing in other ways. I went on a trip away from my family for the first time, to the Philosopher's Island (though he wasn't a philosopher yet - see here). I also went to overnight camp for the first time: basketball camp at Penn State (If you were there, too, that summer and went by the nickname "Wisconsin," please get in touch. I'd be very curious to know whatever happened to you.) The universe was handing me opportunities to reinvent myself, though I never would have thought of it in those terms at the time.
Then one night in August, I went to see a movie. Stand by Me was on the radar for kids my age even before it was released. After all, it was a story about us. Adventure tales were plentiful in the mid-'80s but none quite like this. Four twelve-year-old boys growing up in a small town set off in search of a dead body, hoping to get their names in the paper. No dragons. No light sabers. No biblical relics. Just four boys walking on a train track. They swore. They told disgusting stories. They sang TV show theme songs. They ate garbage. In short, they were real.
They also had problems bigger than mine. Gordie's (Wil Wheaton) parents ignored him most of the time and belittled him whenever they did acknowledge his presence. Teddy's (Corey Feldman) father had been institutionalized after maiming his son. Vern (Jerry O'Connell) was an easy target because he was too nice to stick up for himself - actually, that wasn't too far off from me. Then there was Chris Chambers (River Phoenix). Poor Chris - labeled a bad kid too early in life because of a rotten older brother, with no idea how he was ever going to live down the stigma.
Through all their troubles, they survived on friendship. Chris, in particular, was Gordie's savior and champion, the sort of best friend we all need when we're 12... or 24 or 36... Together, they found the body and stared down the town bully - Kiefer Sutherland's Ace Merrill was way scarier than any dragon. Without a doubt, Stand by Me came into my life at precisely the right moment. I walked out of the theater with a euphoric, uplifting tingle, knowing I had been changed by the experience. But I had a problem: I'd gone to see the movie with my grandmother.
Grandma and I always went to see a movie when I went to visit her in Cleveland. Usually, it was something family-friendly but I took a chance suggesting Stand by Me because I was really eager to see it. I didn't know going in that the language would be as over the top as it was. The swearing didn't really bother me - I'd heard worse at school. The only part of the movie that pushed the limit for me was the Lard Ass Hogan, mass vomiting scene. But I knew the language would bother my grandmother and that I was going to hear about it.
Grandma and I were very close. In her eyes, I would always be her sweet, little boy - the one who would crawl into bed with her on Christmas morning rather than insisting she get up. Along with everything else that changed for me in the summer of '86, so did my relationship with Grandma and it all started the night we went to see Stand by Me.
First, the indignation: "Well, that was a terrible movie!"
Then, the questions: "Do you talk with your friends like that?"
I did my best to explain to her why I loved it. "Yes, I know the language was bad. But can't you see that once you get past that, the story's really good?" Okay, I won't pretend I remember all the specifics about the conversation but I'm sure the details are easily imagined. It was definitely a tough talk, much more so than either of us expected at the beginning of the evening, I'm sure.
A funny thing happened, though. I sort of won the argument. She wasn't any happier about the language by the end of it but I managed to convince her why the story was so important to me. We connected on a level we never had before and I know I wasn't the only one who felt it. Over the following years, she would refer back to the evening in a positive way, a moment of mutual understanding. For the first time in our relationship, we'd had a genuine, adult conversation.
Accepting me as a grownup was always difficult for Grandma. It was a challenge that summer of '86 just as it was the morning we said goodbye 11 years later - we both knew, for the last time. It wasn't until the very end that I realized I'd never really seen her as anything other than my grandmother. She'd been an insecure teenager herself once upon a time. And with Grandma gone, my own childhood was truly over.
Stand by Me is based on Stephen King's novella, The Body. The story's subtitle is Fall From Innocence, a process we all must endure eventually. To date, it is the only Stephen King story I've read from beginning to end.
Epilogue: I was crushed when River Phoenix died. I know, logically, that River Phoenix and Chris Chambers were not actually the same person but his death at a young age with a promising career ahead of him seemed impossibly cruel all the same. It was Len Bias all over again. I followed the careers of the other actors with interest, of course, but River Phoenix was the clear standout in Stand by Me. For me, it was almost like a Beatle dying.
We hope that you, too, will watch Stand by Me and join in our discussion. I'll post September's sign-up list tomorrow. Our feature on Friday, September 12th shall be... Burn After Reading.