As directed by Rob Reiner, "Stand By Me" (selected theaters) is the summer's great gift, a compassionate, perfectly performed look at the real heart of youth. It stands, sweet and strong, ribald, outrageous and funny, like its heroes themselves--a bit gamy around the edges, perhaps, but pure and fine clear through. It's one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed.
The screenwriters, Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, have seen this trek by four tight buddies, about to move into junior high school, with the greatest clarity. It will be a pivotal two days in which matters closest to the bone are revealed, but it's not treated Importantly. Instead, the atmosphere is full of the great, crude, cruddy, ripe banter of four 12-year-old boys--pre-girls, post-cigarettes and full-on to the mysteries of life. And death.
"Stand By Me" is told in the form of a memoir, as established writer Richard Dreyfuss, stunned by a local newspaper item about the death of a close friend, sits in his car, remembering back to 1959. Then, in the fullness of late summer, he and his three friends had an instant of absolute perception: Who they were, what was around them, where they were going. Before the world blurred all the outlines.
(Dreyfuss' amused, ironic intelligence as the narrator and his bracketing scenes at the opening and close contribute enormously to the picture's tone.)
It should not turn anyone away from "Stand By Me" to learn that it's based on a novella by Stephen King, written with that acuity that feels like autobiography. What the movie may do is send readers back to some of King's less celebrated, less cranked-out stories to see if they can possibly match up to this one (which was called "The Body"). Whoa! Come back here. It really isn't that kind of Stephen King story.
"The body" is what sets the boys on their adventure--actually, the breathless news that a pair from an older gang have spotted the body of a 12-year-old boy, missing since he went blueberrying in these dense Oregon woods. Circumstances keep the older gang at bay. The four younger boys, determined that they will become the town's heroes by finding the body, meld their alibis and set off to see their first dead person. "The body" may also mean this body of friends, four totally different, absolutely loyal kids whose strengths and weaknesses work together like one of those chairs you make with four interlocking hands.
Gangs invariably have a natural leader, but the screenwriters (who wrote the lovely, undervalued "Starman") don't tell us, they show us why Chris (River Phoenix) heads this one. Slightly older than his buddies, he's tough but a peacemaker, the one who acts instinctively in a crisis. With alcoholism and delinquency the major strains in his family, his view of his own future is blunted and sardonic; we see him for the princeling he is.
Slight, neat Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris' generous, adoring buddy, sees his friend's real qualities too. Wheaton makes Gordie's "sensitivity" tangible, but not effete. He's a gem. Gordie is still mourning the recent death of his superachieving older brother--as is his whole family. Campfire yarn-spinner now, Gordie will become the writer later on ("a great one . . . maybe you'll write about us," Chris says, in one of the screenplay's rare lapses. Occasionally--only occasionally--the boys' dialogue becomes a little too prescient; Chris has a handle on a lot of home truths that sound more like an author than a character speaking.)
Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) is, of all the boys, the one closest to the edge. Damaged and abused by his father, he still emulates the Normandy Beach heroics that distinguished and traumatized his dad. What's heartbreaking about the rage-filled, daredevil Teddy is how easily he can go in either direction.
Chunky Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell) is a compendium of all our fears as kids: the one who will invariably forget the secret password knock, who's afraid of almost everything from heights to darks. Earnest and sweetly dim, he's also outrageously lovable.
What a director Reiner has become. These four young actors (and, among the less differentiated roles of the older gang, Kiefer Sutherland) have a depth and understanding that makes each character soar and live for days after the film. They are simply brilliant. These are also roles with enormous risks to them, but Reiner has seen that his cast stays honest and his movie marvelously restrained--except for one scene, staged to be as marvelously gross and unrestrained as a kid's unfettered imagination can make it.
Apart from its heart-pounding action scene, involving a trestle bridge and a train, the film is a quiet, lyrical odyssey, which gains everything from its perfect, small-town, heavily forested Oregon surroundings (Dennis Washington did the film's fine production design, Robert Leighton the notable editing, Thomas Del Ruth the cinematography, unprettified but lyrical). Against this background, these boys are thrashing out some of the weightiest matters of their days, with the deceptive simplicity of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, with occasional dollops of Penrod Jashber.
Like Reiner's perfect-pitch put-on of the rock scene, "This Is Spinal Tap," "Stand By Me" uses the music of the day for great jolts of affectionate memory. A whole era floods back as the kids walk along the railroad track, booming "Have gun, will travel reads the card of a man." The soundtrack rocks with "The Book of Love," "Rockin' Robin," "Lollipop" and more.
The film's R rating, for the boys' imaginative and far-rangingly blue language (and probably for the pie-eating contest gross-out), is understandable but sad. It is the way kids talk; other kids will recognize that in an instant. And "Stand By Me" is far too fine to be kept for over-17-year-olds alone; it's a portrait of an age and a moment that its peers will recognize as an unvarnished classic.