Based on a short story by the legendary Stephen King, Stand By Me is as affecting as its source material over 30 years later. It hones in on something both so specific and wholly universal that it will likely withstand the test of time forever. Capturing a moment of childhood reflection so vividly, the story cuts to the very core of every viewer in its path. Simply put, Stand By Me is a masterclass in storytelling of the highest order, and it’s a prime example of a simple story being told properly and the everlasting impact it can have.
On paper, both the film and the story it’s based on are rather straightforward. Four adolescent boys in a small town go on a camping trip to see a dead body. For a trip that takes the group about two days, it’s a story that a lesser writer would tell in a few pages. But when it comes to delving into the very essence of a human being, few do it better than King. Within the short story, King is able to break down this group of children in a way that feels raw. And Reiner’s film is able to capitalize on this brilliance. There are thrilling moments in this, making the trip feel like a real adventure, but for the most part, it feels almost uncinematic, especially with its slightly altered ending. And this isn’t meant as an insult at all. On the contrary, it’s a welcome change that makes the final moments of the film hit that much harder. As Gordon Lachance says to his friends, “Going to see a dead body shouldn’t be a party”. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a very fun film at certain moments. The way the kids work off each other, and their youthful energy, feels as if the cast has been friends their entire lives. It’s four fantastic, authentic child performances that ground the movie and allow it to be impactful.
At the end of the day, Stand By Me takes a deep look at time, and more importantly, how unceremonious and unfair it can be. We’re all given a set amount of time in this world, and we’re often told to make the most of what we’ve got. It’s easier said than done for some, but it rings true regardless of circumstance. And in the case of Lachance and his small group of elementary school friends, we witness it firsthand. Memories are brought up only due to a small news article and seeing his son play with his friend. While many of us surely have friends we have not seen in years, or even decades, the memories can still feel fresh. As cruel as time is, it’s a deeply fascinating notion to look back at something the farther away you get from it. There’s a level of appreciation that can only be built up with time, but that also makes room for upsetting reflection.
With a cast of children that are simply a wonder to witness on screen, Reiner is able to do something truly magical. The film captures these moments of unadulterated childhood wonder and thought in a way which feels pure and authentic. The kids peel back layers of one another, revealing their true selves. Nobody wants to cry in front of their friends as a kid, or turn down the dare, or pass up a moment of proving that you’re “tough”. From wondering about a confrontation between Mighty Mouse and Superman to late night discussions about nonsense, being a kid is something special. And this story knows it well, and uses that inherent joy but ever looming sadness to its advantage.
Stand By Me isn’t just a story about being a kid. In reality, it’s a story about growing up, and losing a part of you that can never be brought back no matter how hard we try to hold on to it: childhood innocence. Most people don’t have a distinct moment of recognition such as these kids do. There’s no fanfare as time banally claims another moment, it’s a force that simply continues moving. It’s an unstoppable entity that doesn’t care about friendships or anything in between. As the group parts ways, an older Lachance reflects on how his friends slowly drifted apart, not out of malice or lack of caring, but just by way of the human condition. The film has tragedy in it, but it’s never approached in a way that feels bitter. It’s a mature reflection on the very nature of life itself. People will come and go, but these memories of ours can last a lifetime. And as far away as we can get from these moments that have long passed, it sometimes takes the smallest push forward to kickstart memory. The final moments of this film show Lachance having it all. A beautiful house, a child, and the career that he wanted to fearfully run from as a kid. But there’s a bit of sadness there in those final moments, and it’s that balance that Reiner so effortlessly plays with throughout the film. Life can be difficult and unforgiving, but with films like Stand By Me and friends, it can be a little easier.