The King of Summer: Stand by Me (1986)
“Maybe he’s dead!”
“He’s not dead, he’s still breathing you idiot.”
“Well, I don’t know!”
The permanence of Stephen King stories is birthed in their genre trappings. Like any great horror or thriller, genres which King programed, the imagination lingers beyond the conception of a shock, festering in the implications of structure and how its characters react. But King, by writing beyond such “genre” fare, showcases the crystallization of an effective emotional through-line, no matter the outrageousness of the scenario. Stand by Me, based on King’s novella The Body, understands such serious molding in both personality and narrative, even if the tale is far away from the realms of spirits and killer clowns.
Most of this book-to-screen coherency can be attributed to the script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, which is an adolescent dream in how it captures humans on the hinge of self-discovery, tattered innocence, and confrontation of time’s limitations. Its flavor for cheap vulgarity, witty side-cracks, and reservoirs of deep connection become the present stage for a narration — recited by Richard Dreyfuss, no less – of The Writer, one of the boys involved in an account of murder, adventure, bravery, and childishness. His dead-eyed, plain-as-day recollections are told in sharp contrast to the sweeping naturalism of the nostalgic “flashbacks”, although it all is masterfully gentle in the hands of director Rob Reiner, someone who, even while buried in a filmography comprised of Misery, This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, still has time for show-stopping cameo performances (“I wait ALL WEEK for the fuckin’ Equalizer!”).
Oregon’s beauty, with its cascading dark green tree branches and the dewy light blue expanse of the sky, finds a home in Reiner’s calm, understated approach to drama, suspense, and environment. A famous scene where the boys are chased off a train bridge by, well, a train, is supremely well-staged, with the locomotive noisily charging towards their place on the wood slabs of the overpass, sold via swift cutting and a deft exemplification of threat and the threatened; the train looming large over their little bodies frantically sprinting away from danger. The grandeur of the location shooting aligns perfectly with the small-scale pathos of the story; it’s pretty and yet it doesn’t care, contributing to the energy of these boys and how their responses are usually in their own state of response to how they’re supposed to behave. In that awkward in-between state, children, always in fear of not acting like they should, show their truest self.
And no other group of kids could’ve brought that necessary tenderness and empathy to this source. River Phoenix. Wil Wheaton. Corey Feldman. Jerry O’Connell; they’re all astonishing, and the sentiment is completely unforced, the energy implying their own personal discoveries along with the characters they’re portraying. What’s more poignant is Phoenix’s final moment, with The Writer commenting on Chris’ tragic end, akin to the early death of the actor himself. Fading into oblivion, the narration pieces together the divide between the beauty of nostalgia and the pain of growing up into a single mirage of a soul imprinting itself onto memory. It’s a scene which sells King’s inherent success as an artist as well as the triumph of bringing it to screen in translation: it is not the distinct occurrences which affect us, but the cumulative power of them, flowing like a stream.
But King-agnostics hardly know how funny his work is, or how heartwarming, although the scares come first in a lot of his tapestries. Stand by Me is consistently hilarious and sweet, and there’s not a pair of ghost twins in sight, highlighting King’s gift for precision within developed dynamics, pushing stakes to their intended intensity for such a little tale. This movie is scary (at times), and that’s because the world they’re growing accustomed to is just that, but by observing a group of twelve-year-old boys' faces, their fears along their adventure, the viewer joins the journey. The narrator, like any other member in the audience regarding their personal tales, tells his story like a vivid episode, weaving his pent-up impression into a story which sends relatability across the trees. Reiner takes a Linklater route (Linklater owes a lot to Reiner, here) of curating specific recollections for a broader discussion of nostalgia. What’s responsive for one, soon, is discovered as universal.