On August 8, 1986 director Rob Reiner began an incredible five film run by releasing a seemingly simple adaptation of a Stephen King novella called The Body. Reiner’s film was called Stand By Me and starred River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell as four young friends who, in 1959, set out on a journey to see a dead body. After initially opening in limited release, the film expanded a few weeks later and became a box office hit, raking in just over $50 million.
As a young boy, though, none of that was important. What was important is when I finally saw Stand By Me, I was at an impressionable enough age that Reiner’s film, so expertly crafted and filled with perfect dialogue and performances, taught me things my parents never would have thought of. I was schooled in the ways of Fifties pop music. I learned what a leech was. I learned how to use “dodge” as verb and I learned how many you got for flinching. What was, on the surface, a seemingly simple adaptation was obviously much more than that and has stood the test of time.
After the jump, read fifteen silly and serious things Stand By Me still teaches us 25 years after its initial release.
Though I’ve always been a fan of Stand By Me, I hadn’t seen it – in full – in some years. Watching it again, these are just some of the things that stood out, or I remembered latching onto when it was first released, that still ring true today.
1. River Phoenix and Kiefer Sutherland were stars - Director Rob Reiner did an unbelievable job casting Stand By Me but, even 25 years later, it’s easy to see that Phoenix and Sutherland were the stand-outs. O’Connell was jolly and great (more on him later), Wheaton did a solid job in the lead, but Chris Chambers and Ace Merrill were simply boss: Confident, electric and impossible to take your eyes off of. Unfortunately, with Phoenix’s untimely death in 1993 we only saw a sliver of his potential while Sutherland has proved, time and again, that he’s worthy of such praise.
2. Guns raise the stakes – Stand By Me is just a sweet little movie until Chris shows Gordy (Wheaton) the gun he stole from his father. That’s the moment you know things are going to go to another level. For the rest of the film, that piece of steel in Chris’s bag looms like a cloud over the story, adding a perfect slice of drama.
3. Remember where you bury things – One of the funniest moments in Stand By Me is the scene of Vern (O’Connell) digging under his porch for his pennies. Great, subtle but perfect character moments like this are what really bring the film together. Plus, every time you watch it, be it the first time or 25 years later, you feel for Vern. It’s never fun to lose something.
4. Three innings isn’t an official game – As a young boy, the concept of “mailbox baseball” first came to my attention in Stand By Me as Ace and his crew smash mailboxes from a passing car with a bat. The scene is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. You’re dying to know more about this game but can’t believe each character’s audacity. But in this one scene, the bad guys are each given a totally believable personality without saying a word about it.
5. “So funny, I forgot to laugh” – If I grew up in the ’50s, lines of dialogue like “So funny I forgot to laugh,” or “I don’t shut up, I throw up” might have been part of the norm but not so in the ’80s and ’90s. So when you hear these little verbal gems in the movie, you always smile at their timeless cleverness. Plus, I credit the film for bringing a few of these quips back.
6. “Chopper, sick balls.” - Who could forget the perfect scene of Gordy getting chased by the mythical junkyard dog Chopper whose owner had, supposedly, taught him to “sick balls?” No one, that’s who. It’s one of the many lines of dialogue in the movie that still reverberates through pop culture today.
7. Flashbacks can be incredibly effective when done right – It’s not like Stand By Me was the first film to use flashbacks, far from it, but when used sparingly and in the right moments, they can have amazingly powerful effect. Case in point, the stuff with John Cusack as Denny, Gordy’s deceased bother.
8. Mighty Mouse vs. Superman – Thanks to Stand By Me, we know that Mighty Mouse could never beat up Superman because Mighty Mouse is a cartoon and Superman is a real guy. Scenes like this exchange between Teddy (Feldman) and Vern, while really funny, also are great examples of the undeniable chemistry exhibited by the young actors in the film.
9. Know the train schedule – “Does anyone know when the next train is due?” If only the boys had that info, they wouldn’t have had to sprint across a bridge with a speeding train at their back. A fantastic, tense scene and a great lesson. If you are going to walk on real train tracks, have the schedule handy.
10. Castor Oil Makes you puke – Two words: Lard Ass. The most out-of-place scene in all of Stand By Me is Gordy’s fictional story of how town fat kid nicknamed Lard Ass competes in a pie eating contest and gets the whole town to vomit all over each other. A real barf-o-rama, all courtesy of Lard Ass’s ingestion of raw eggs and castor oil. Gross, but totally classic and though it seems out of place, it’s a spot-on wish-fulfillment scene for the frequently belittled boys.
11. Richard Dreyfus makes a great narrator – In an era of great narrators like Daniel Stern in The Wonder Years, it’s tough to beat Richard Dreyfus as the older Gordy. Having him narrate the film from the future gives the whole thing a nostalgic, introspective feel that otherwise would have been impossible. A true stroke of genius.
12. Leeches wind up in the worst possible places – Another classic scene is whenthe boys cross a little lake and end up with leeches all over themselves, including one on Gordy’s private area. As a kid, the scene was terrifying even though I’d never seen a leech before and, to this day, whenever I hear the word, I think of Stand By Me.
13. Twinkies, cherry Pez and root beer are great breakfast foods – While Phoenix and Sutherland were the obvious standouts, next on the list was Jerry O’Connell giving a pitch perfect performance as Vern. Even 25 years later, it’s remarkable to watch a young actor give a performance filled with such humility and innocence while still being kind of cool and confident. Plus, looking back on the life O’Connell has made for himself in the years since, the character of Vern has become almost totally separate from the actor himself, something that can rarely be said for even the best performances.
14. A family reputation is hard to live down, or up to – One of the film’s more serious messages is how much family can effect you and the difficulty in breaking out of that. There’s Chris, the smart good-hearted kid who is having a hard time being taken seriously because his family is such a waste. There’s Gordy, the talented but shy writer who is totally overshadowed by his athletic brother who steals even more attention when he passes away. And there’s Teddy, the crazy kid who is in denial of his father’s flaws by only focusing on his war exploits. These struggles are the soul and core of the film and most of us can find a lot to relate to in at least one, if not more, of them.
15. The best friends you have are the ones you have when you’re young - The film ends on this sentiment and while it’s not necessary true, watching the film as a kid, it sure feels like it. Even 25 years later, what that sentiment does is make you think back on the friends you had when you were younger and the good times you all had. Maybe you looked for dead bodies like Gordy and the gang. Or maybe you were like me and remember playing manhunt in the neighborhood, shooting HORSE in the driveway, killing each other in GoldenEye or lining up quarters for Mortal Kombat at the arcade. I don’t talk to the kids I did those things with anymore but they’ll never leave my memory. And, for me, that’s why Stand By Me is so brilliant. It takes a great story and brings each one of us back to our childhood. It did it in 1986, it does it in 2011 and it’ll do it until we stop watching movies.