Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me follows a group of four young boys – Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern – as they go about their childhoods one fateful weekend in 1959. They set out on a quest to find a dead body, and on the way encounter their school bullies, trains, leeches, and other dangers. In the process, they learn about each other, and the audience learns what it was like to be a boy in that time period. There are several aspects of childhood (boyhood in particular) that are explored in depth in Stand By Me, which this paper will address in detail.
A very important point made in Stand By Me is the need in American youth culture to seem ‘manly’ or ‘macho,’ being able to stand up for yourself and be a man. This is evidenced by the pressures put on all the boys (especially each other) to seem tough. Gordie (Wil Wheaton) struggles throughout to be manly, as he is perpetually in the shadow of his older brother Denny, who dies in a car accident. This leads his father to resent him, as he is not as tough and macho as Denny was. Desperate to prove himself, Gordie goes on this journey to find the dead body Vern tells them about. Confronting many fears along the way, his quest to manhood culminates in the pulling of a gun on the bully Ace Merrill (Keifer Sutherland) in order to prevent them from taking the body and beating up the gang.
Chris (River Phoenix) also has his own struggles with being a man on his own terms. For Chris’ family, who are criminals and alcoholics, being on the wrong side of the law is what being a man means. Chris is tough in his own right, but he does not want to be like them, and so he continually fights against the stereotypes others in the town place on him. He, like Gordie, wishes to be tough, but Chris needs to do it in his own way.
Youth culture, particularly young male culture, often has an obsession with the strange, the disgusting and the weird, as evidenced by the attitude of the boys in Stand By Me. There is, of course, the central Macguffin, which is to see a dead body that Vern heard about. The only motivation for finding the body is to see a dead body in general, the gang displaying a morbid fascination with the gross and disgusting. Furthermore, their banter is always filled with epithets and mentions of disgusting events and scenarios – at one point, Gordie tells the rest of the gang a story about a blueberry pie-eating contest that leads in everyone in the story vomiting profusely all over each other. This kind of repartee is part and parcel for young boys, as evidenced by the film: they like grossing each other out, seeking visceral thrills and the like.
Stand By Me also indicates the fleeting passage of childhood, and how the friendships one makes as a kid often do not last into adulthood. The framing device of the film is an adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) narrating this tale as he writes it, having grown up to become a writer with a son of his own. When they had returned to their town of Castle Rock after the trip to see the dead body, the gang says goodbye and all walk away, implying the end of their regular adventures together, if not their close friendships. Nonetheless, they left an indelible impression on each other, and this helped to shape their identities for the rest of their lives.
This is made clear in the final scene, in which adult Gordie recounts the eventual fates of Chris, Teddy and Vern – Vern got a wife and kids after high school, settling down for a family quickly; Teddy was imprisoned after a failed attempt to join the military, and settled into infrequent work. Chris ended up becoming the virtuous, yet ‘macho’ man he wanted to be, as he broke up a fight at a restaurant; however, that incident cost him his life. Once he is finished with the story, he ends the film with the line, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Gordie’s friendships as a child helped make him the man he became, and he was ever thankful and nostalgic for those simpler times.
Stand By Me presents a stunningly nostalgic picture of the harsh realities of youth; sometimes, becoming a man is really hard, and is about more than acting tough and doing what is expected of you. Boys often bond over the horrific and disgusting, and use their aloofness to those things as further evidence of their manliness. Also, the movie offers the possibility that your best friends in childhood will not remain so for the rest of your life. At the same time, no matter what further contact they have in your lives, you still remember them with fondness, as those experiences with them helped you become who you are.
Stand By Me. Dir. Rob Reiner. Perf. Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2007. DVD.