Film & Television

River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton as
Chris Chambers and Gordie Lachance

Stand By Me
 by John Fish
INTENTIONALLY OR UNINTENTIONALLY, every so often Hollywood comes up with a movie about a man/boy type relationship. "A Thousand Clowns" was one such film.  "E.T." was another. The latest film in this category is the new Rob Reiner film, "Stand By Me."

        When I say a man/boy type relationship, I do not mean all relation- ships involving a man and a boy, or that both a man and a boy are actively involved. In "E.T." the "man" is actually an extra-terrestrial, who no one but the boy could appreciate or understand. In "Stand By Me" the "man" is a semi-delinquent 12 year old who is the only one able to appreciate or understand his best friend.

        If you have not yet seen this film, you should put down your copy of the Bulletin, consult the movie guide in your local paper, and run -- do not walk -- to the next available screening. It is that good.

        The film is well written, well directed, well cast, and the performances of the actors are outstanding. This is especially true of Wil Wheaton ("The Buddy System") and River Phoenix ("Explorers"), who play the film's main characters.

        According to a story by Bruce Chancler in the New York Daily News, River Phoenix began his acting career at the age of 10 thinking it would "be a medium in which I could tell people of the world's troubles." He is concerned that American adults do not take the threat of nuclear weapons seriously enough. His first role was in the TV series "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. " He also appeared in "Family Ties," as a gifted young tutor.  His future film credits will include "Mosquito Coast," in which he co-stars with Harrison Ford, and "Jimmy Reardon," a comedy aimed at teenage audiences.

        In "Stand By Me" Phoenix delivers a strong and moving performance as the semi-delinquent Chris Chambers, one that could easily win an Academy Award, were it not for the fact that he is a 15 year old actor in an industry that tends not to take the performances of young actors seriously.

        The script is adapted from "The Body." one of the four novellas that make up the book, "Different Seasons," by Stephen King. It is not the kind of chilling horror story for which King is best known. This is the story of four 12 year old boys who, at the end of the summer between sixth grade and junior high, make a long journey on foot to look for the dead body of a missing boy their own age. It is not an easy journey, and in the process of searching for and finding the body, they discover and reveal a great deal about themselves and one another.

        The fact that the story is told as a flashback to an earlier time (1959) and a simpler place (a small town) makes it more digestible for the adult audiences at whom the film is aimed. (The movie is rated "R" --for "strong language." Hollywood doesn't want anyone under the age of 18 to hear how everyone talks at the age of 12.) Since we are not looking at the youth of today, but the young people we once were (and still long to be), it is easier to accept the cigarette smoking, the four letter words, and all the other things young people often say and do when there are no authority figures around. And the music is not the music of today's youth, but of our own.

        Chris is the leader of the four boys and exhibits all the compassion, sensitivity, wisdom and understanding that most boy lovers aspire to. He is also the kind of boy that many lonely and insecure boy lovers would benefit from knowing. One of those people everyone benefits from knowing, whether they realize it at the time or not.

        Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) is the boy that Chris "stands by." He is a boy with a special gift for creating stories, that no one but Chris understands or appreciates. To make matters worse, Gordie has a recently deceased older brother -- a former high school star athlete -- that everyone understands and appreciates.

        At one point, Chris tries to inspire Gordie by telling him. "It's like God gave you something, all those stories you can make up, and He said: 'This is what we got for you kid, Try not to lose it.' But kids lose everything unless somebody looks out for them and if your folks are too fucked up to do it, then maybe I ought to."

        It is largely due to the efforts of Chris that Gordie grows up to become a famous and financially successful novelist that no one ever recognizes wherever he goes without his American Express card. ("The Body" is thought by most to be autobiographical, but when Reiner asked King if the story had any basis in fact, King would only say, "Well, to be honest with you, I'm a pathological liar and I don't know what is and what isn't true, but if it isn't true, it should be.")

        In an interview with David Hunter in the Orange County Review, Wheaton described Gordie as a "challenging, very, very complex person to get into." In preparing for the role Wheaton says he read the original story by King and talked to relatives who were growing up during the fifties to find out "what was in, what was out -- how the kids acted." A year younger than Phoenix, Wheaton is sometimes overpowered by him in the film's earlier scenes. By the end of the film, however, Wheaton's screen presence is every bit as powerful as that of River Phoenix.

        In addition to "Stand By Me," Wheaton has also appeared in "Hambone and Willie" and "The Buddy System," and in several television productions, including "A Long Way Home," "The Shooting" and "The Defiant Ones". In "The Buddy System," Wheaton is the friend of a character played by Richard Dreyfuss, In "Stand By Me, " Dreyfuss makes a brief appearance as the adult version of Wheaton's character.

        Like Phoenix, Wheaton gives a performance worthy of at least an Academy Award nomination, if not the Award itself. In reality, director Rob Reiner will probably be the only one in the film honored by the Academy, for "getting a bunch of kids to give such great performances." But no one ever said life was fair (except, of course, Ronald Reagan, who, like King, is a pathological liar).

        The other two boys in the gang of four, Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and Vern Tassio (Jerry O'Connell), are not as quick-witted as Chris and Gordie, and serve the story more as a source of comic relief than anything else. Both Feldman and O'Connell do an excellent job, and all four young actors play well off one another.

        Kiefer Sutherland also adds to the film's credibility as the menacing "Ace" Merrill, leader of a gang of teen-age toughs whose greatest pleasure in life comes from tormenting others, especially 12 year old boys.

        At times the film slips into a condescending romanticism of "youth's idyllic simplicity," and there is one scene that sends the message that a gun is the solution to young people's oppression. Aside from this I enjoyed the movie thoroughly.

        River Phoenix, in his Daily News interview, said, "'Stand By Me' is the first film I totally liked working in." It is easy to see why. The film is outstanding.  Don't miss it.




From NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 8, Pg. 8, Oct 1986
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2006

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