Stand By Me

(Rob Reiner, USA, 1986)


Note: This text was originally part of a 1990 essay, “Some Kind of Wonderful: An Introduction to the Contemporary Teen Movie”. For the surrounding discussion of the teen genre as a whole, a 74-page PDF of heretofore unpublished material written in 1989-1990 is now available exclusively to supporters of my Patreon campaign for this website: www.patreon.com/adrianmartin


A Complete Teen Movie


The contemporary teen movie exists on a continuum that runs between the apparent extremes of this (loose) genre: at the one end, the respectable teen dramas (like Dead Poets Society, 1989), at the other the dirty’ comedies (like Meatballs, 1979). How best to deal with such different kinds of films? Fortunately, the range of the form can be illustrated within a single, handy example: Stand By Me.


Those who are primarily versed in the literature devoted to teenage experience – J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye, Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, S.E. Hinton’s novels, and so on – would have no problem approaching Stand By Me. It concerns itself with the classic theme of teen literature, variously known as coming of age, loss of innocence, or rite of passage – in other words, the drama (or comedy) of a teenager (or group of teenagers) growing up, acquiring painful human experience, attaining a measure of adult maturity. On TV, the series The Wonder Years (1988-1993) provided a perfect contemporary illustration of this perennial thematic concern.


Stand By Me, like much teen literature, is about the experience of leaving behind, for the first time, the protective realm of childhood fantasies and encountering the facts of adult life – primarily, in this case, the hard fact of human mortality, the reality of death. The entire narrative is structured around the adventure, for a group of kids, of going into the woods to track down a dead body. Their literal journey into the dark unknown – marked by the train tracks stretching far out in front of them – is also a metaphorical journey, into themselves, their relationships with each other, and the mysteries of adult life. As Tom Ryan astutely noted in the short-lived Australian magazine Freeze Frame, the film can be seen as a “bittersweet fable about the recognition of mortality, and about the passing of time and of friendships”.


These kids indeed lose their innocence, but the film ultimately takes a complex, ambivalent attitude toward this movement into adult life. If they forfeit their childish fantasies, one senses they also, in the process, lose their capacity to love and be affectionate with one another in a free and naturally physical way. Are they on their way to becoming the brutal macho swaggerers incarnated in a mirroring group of older teens?


In its style, Stand By Me is a predominantly naturalistic film. Its main characters, at least, are fleshed out psychologically, and they move about in a believably real world. (Indeed, it was this verisimilitude that, for some reviewers, raised the film far above their idea of the average teen movie. I do not share that opinion!) The film’s tone of seriousness, wistfulness and reflectiveness is guaranteed by the framing device showing Richard Dreyfuss as Gordie, one of the central boys in his adult years and now a writer by profession, learning of the death of his best childhood friend (Chris played by River Phoenix), and then proceeding to remember. As in The Wonder Years, the narrating adult voice, appearing at key moments of the story, affords us a crucial perspective on events ­ a perspective by turns ironic, affectionate, indulgent and wise.


So here we have, in respect to Reiner’ s teen movie, a certain kind of film appreciation that could best be called classical, taking its inspiration largely from standard literary or dramatic criticism and adapting it to the medium of film. That is, we looks at a film in order to find its underlying theme, and how that theme has been expressed through the character interactions and the events of the story. Crucially, we look for the attitude that the filmmakers are asking us to take towards what we see and hear: are we meant to be critical, ironic, indulgent, teary-eyed?


This attitude of the work will be expressed not necessarily in the dialogue of the characters (a common interpretative mistake), but rather in all the gestures of the film’s style and construction: the way the story has been ordered, the kind of shots, editing and music chosen, and so on. This an honourable (if sometimes rote) manner of film study, and can be used to uncover the riches of many fine teen movies, such as River’s Edge (1986), Risky Business (1983), The Breakfast Club (1985), The Beat (1988), Sweet Lorraine (1987), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982), The Outsiders (1983), Old Enough (1984), Purple Haze (David Burton Morris, 1982) and Permanent Record (1988), to name only a few.


However, there is a remarkable scene in the middle of Stand By Me that forces us to see it as, at least momentarily, a different kind of teen movie, one that requires a different critical approach. Tellingly, it is a scene that some reviewers managed to ignore altogether in their praiseworthy accounts – as it were just too bizarre, too out of character for the rest of the film. It is the scene when Gordie tells the imaginary story of a boy nicknamed Lardass at a pie eating contest.


Reiner visualises this story in its full, grotesque splendour – almost (I suspect) as a calculated affront directed at those cultured filmgoers whose worst nightmare is to be trapped watching a typical gross-out teen flick. The scene condenses everything that people hate in such movies: gross motives (revenge), shamelessly stereotyped characters (Lardass as the ultimate fat boy), exaggerated filmic style (deliberately distorted sounds and overripe colours) and, finally, a spectacle of unreal proportions and astonishing vulgarity – the “complete and total barf-o-rama” (as Gordie well describes it) in which everyone on stage and in the crowd vomits uncontrollably over each other. This scene can be profitably used as a cultural acid test on any given group of film viewers – people either love it or hate it. (Count me among the lovers.)


In this way, Stand By Me provides a valuable lesson in relativity. Realism, naturalism, a subdued filmic style, believable characters, a period setting, a serious theme – these are not always the elements that go to make up interesting, lively or inventive popular cinema. A certain regime of cinematic fantasy is just as central to the workings of our culture what are often called those pop films full of stereotyped characters, wish-fulfillment scenarios and over-the-top stylistics. Into this category go virtually all the teen movies of the prolific American filmmaker John Hughes (including Sixteen Candles [1984], Weird Science [1985] and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off [1986]), and many others including Three O’Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987), I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Robert Zemeckis, 1978), Joy of Sex (Martha Coolidge, 1984) and Tuff Turf (Fritz Kiersch, 1984).

MORE Reiner: The Story of Us, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Sure Thing

© Adrian Martin March 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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