By Angelo Auriemma
Stand by Me is a classic. There is a reason it was featured at this year’s Heartland Film Festival. There is a reason it is held in high regard not only by millions of people, ranging from adolescents to retirees, but also by director Rob Reiner himself. The famed filmmaker claims that this film is his proudest project amongst an exceptional lineup, including The Princess Bride, Misery, A Few Good Men, and The American President. Stand by Me accomplishes the difficult task of appealing tremendously to people of all ages and backgrounds. It has withstood the test of time and has not been tossed aside – it is not a “forgotten classic,” an “underappreciated masterpiece,” or a “cult classic.” Instead, it is widely accepted to be one of the best films ever made, resting comfortably in IMDb’s Top 250 and wielding a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.
While these feats are impossible to argue against, how well does the film stand on its own? Taking away the knowledge that it is exceptionally successful and famous, is the film still special? If it came out today, in autumn 2017, would it be held in such high regard? This is what I want to expound upon today. I could go on and on about how it is profound and nostalgic, but that doesn’t bring about any new discussion or ideas. I want to challenge the film as if it is brand new. With Heartland in full swing and Rob Reiner being honored with a lifetime achievement award, it seems like a fitting time to do so.
For some context: I was privileged enough to see the movie just a few days ago in a nice, cool theater with a comfy recliner. Rob Reiner was in attendance to answer audience questions after the credits rolled, and only one person awkwardly used this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask him for a selfie. I had seen the film once before—I was roughly 10 or 11 years old at the time—so my memory was hazy but I still recalled the gist. It rolled off my back at the time, and I hadn’t yet sought it out for a re-watch.
The film revolves around a group of four kids: Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern. Portrayed by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, respectively, the boys seek out a rumored dead body a few miles from their small town. What they initially hope to find with the body is fame and recognition, but their long trip ultimately results in an obsession with discovering the corpse, particularly for Gordie.
The first thing about the film to jump out at me was just how dark it is. It is fitting that Stranger Things and It are so popular now. Relating this film to those pieces is something that I found comfort in. Not only are both rooted in the past, but each are dark pieces with children at the forefront. Sure, It is also based off of a Stephen King book, and Stranger Things certainly bears inspiration from the horror classics, but the comparisons are certainly worth noting. Comparing Stand by Me to both Stranger Things and It, I can certainly see it doing well in 2017. The children are equally three-dimensional, the bullies are equally intimidating, and the themes are equally complex.
Each child deals with parental trouble. They struggle with abuse, abandonment, and emotions that make feel a lack of worth. Teddy’s father stormed the beaches of Normandy, and is now referred to as a “loony.” Additionally, they begin to wrap their young heads around the idea of death—how it is inevitable and how it can leave lasting impacts on others. In entertainment, the theme of “the loss of innocence” is so common, yet it really hits home in Stand by Me. You watch these boys shed their skin and lose what made them children. They are different people at the end of the movie compared to how they start.
The acting is what led the charge in this case—it was good across the board. Vern stands out to me: he is labeled as the stereotypical, overweight kid that is often the target of jokes by others. Many of his lines got a chuckle out of me; his timing was solid, and he rarely swings at a one-liner and misses. I don’t mean to sound as if the other boys arre much worse, as they weren’t, but they don’t have the same charm that Vern has to me. He feels authentic and real, which is something that is difficult for a child actor to pull off. With that being said, though, he also has the easiest job: he has by far the least conflict and depth compared to the other boys. The added complexity and dimensions by the others seem to be a bit too much for the child actors to handle, understandably so. Each has moments of awkwardness and significant cheese, Chris in particular.
The cheese is the biggest thing that stands out to me when pointing out why it maybe wouldn’t be received with the same amount of praise in 2017. There is a certain rawness and authenticity that it lacks. Oftentimes, I find that child actors may struggle with sounding robotic, as if they are reading off of a script. In Stand by Me, on the other hand, it is the opposite: it is overacting. When the boys need to cry, they shriek. When they need to say a joke in unison, it seems to be pulled from an old-school sitcom, only lacking a laugh track and a catchy theme song. These are the elements that send it back to the past and make it a product of its time.
There are significant amounts of details I could pour over, but I don’t think it’s necessary to analyze each moment of this 89-minute film—I’ve already answered the question I posed in the introduction: does Stand by Me hold up? Yeah, I think it does. I think someone can still watch this and appreciate it, feel impacted by it, and have fun with it. If it were to be released now, would it be perfect and posed for a wave of critical acclaim by 2017 audiences? No, certainly not. While there are so many points that successfully connect to audience members of all ages and backgrounds, there are a handful of things that tie it back to the 80s when it released.
Disregarding its fame and history, I enjoyed Stand by Me a lot, and I think many would as well. When comparing it to It (2017) and Stranger Things as two notably similar pieces, I enjoy it the least, but that does not take away from everything that this film does right. It takes child actors and throws them into a film that focuses on them for 95% of the time. It hits on dark and complex subject matter yet still manages to get a laugh. It is worthy of its title as a classic, and it is very apparent why it is held in such high regard today.