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Posted by on Jun 13, 2015

Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me

There are movies that premiere at a certain age in your life that seem to snag you at just the right moment. These movies seemed to be made for you and you were ready for these movies. There are certain films that I have a deep affection for that, were they to come out tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t enjoy as much. “Crude” comedies that came out the nineties tend to fall into this category. They were racy at the time I saw them and they’ve planted the seed for my sense of humor now, but if I were an adult in the 90s, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed them that much. The Ace Ventura films fall into this group, as do some of Chris Farley’s early films. Adam Sandler’s early films, like Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore fall into this group, and I think my admiration and feeling of endearment towards Sandler as an actor stems primarily from a sense of nostalgia for my childhood

Children’s movies usually fall into this group, too. The Mighty Ducks movies and The Sandlot are films that I would certainly consider classics, but I recognize that I probably wouldn’t go see them in the theater if they came out today. But I probably wouldn’t go see any feel-good sports film about a team of underdogs, or a film about a lost trio of housepets trying to get home (Homeward Bound) or a slapstick comedy about a child left home alone who is terrorized by two bandits (Home Alone). When you are a kid, you are ripe for that type of story. Nowadays, most of the films I see are made for adults and are about adults, and I probably won’t regularly see films about kids until (if/when) I have children of my own.

To me, this demonstrates a difficult task filmmakers face: how do you make a mature, realistic film about children that appeals to adults?

Certainly, some of the greats have done it well: Rossellini with Germania Anno Zero (Rome, Open City) and Truffaut with The 400 Blows, and recently The Boy with the Bicycle by the Dardenne Brothers. These are all exceptional films, of course, but in my opinion they serve more to use the case of children to indict adults and their immature and selfish behavior. It’s rare to find a film that shows what it’s like to be a kid in a way that adults can appreciate, a film that celebrates childhood and demonstrates what it was like to be a kid. Stand by Me, the 1986 film by Rob Reiner, stands out for me in that regard.

I recently rewatched the film, which is based on a Stephen King novella called “The Body.” Set in 1959, the film focuses on the friendship between four twelve-year boys who go on an overnight hike to view the corpse of a missing child. Even though Stand by Me came out the year before I was born and is about children, it wasn’t a film I watched or admired as a child, despite seeing it on TV several times. I really didn’t get it. It was too slow to be a kid’s movie. I didn’t really see it until age 16 when I read the “The Body” in a high school English class. I had already been a fan of Stephen King and was deeply fascinated by the 1950s and 1960s in American history. I ate up every word of the novella, have reread it multiple times, and today it remains my favorite works by Mr. King.

After finishing the novel, I rewatched the film, and developed a strong appreciation for it, an appreciation which seems to grow the more I watch it and the older I get. I think at 16 I was ripe for this movie: I was old enough to appreciate the film’s theme of nostalgia. At 16, I was already acknowledging a bit of regret for the hours I had spent playing video games (and I was hardly a video game addict) rather than playing outside more. Yet I was still young enough to live a little like the children in the movie.

Stand By Me is an adult film, despite its cast made up mostly of children. It bears an R-rating (for whatever arbitrary criteria that is based on). There is frequent swearing by 12-year-old boys, references to abusive fathers and negligent parents. The boys smoke and discuss the growing breasts of Anette from the Mickey Mouse Club. They engage in confrontations with local gangs and even experiment with firearms. And the film’s plot is rather grim: the search for the corpse of a dead child. It’s also not a very thrilling film for children; it’s leisurely paced, rather-dialogue heavy, and full of references to things that would be lost on children today.

The film, I think, appeals mostly to adults who grew up in the same era as these kids. Rob Reiner, in fact, was born in 1947, so he would’ve been twelve in 1959, the year the film takes place. Yet, I think it continues to appeal to people of my generation because we are old enough to remember a time before cell phones, video games, and the internet. I watch Stand by Me now and feel nostalgic for my own childhood and for an era that I never lived in. The powerful effect of a film like Stand By Me is that it reminds you of what it’s like to be a kid.

Just a couple of weekends ago, a few friends and I drove to upstate New York to the Black Rock Forest for a hiking excursion. Removed of our cellphones, our jobs, our wallets and any other obligations, it was like we became boys again. At one point along the trail, one of us challenged the rest to try to hit a thin tree with a rock: whoever hit it first would get a free beer. (After we were done, another friend commented that a group of girls would probably never have stopped to do that.) At another moment, we spent a solid 20 minutes skipping stones on a reservoir. Later, in mid-conversation, one of us spotted a football in a field and cut off his own conversation, yelling “There’s a football!” We all sprinted towards it. No one remembers what we were talking about before. It no longer mattered. Finally, as if the grand culmination of the hike, we found a row boat without paddles in the woods next to a large pond; we improvised with sticks and used the boat to swim in the pond. Like an iconic scene in Stand By Me, I half-expected to emerge from the pond covered in leaches. That didn’t happen, but I did find a tick on my thigh later that night.

After the hike, I couldn’t resist making mental comparisons to Stand by Me and think about why this film continues to have an effect on me the older I get. All of us want to romanticize our childhood. I also don’t believe I am writing from the priviledged point of view of someone who experienced a happy childhood. The children in Stand By Me all come from troubled family situations: an abusive father, a deceased brother, a father in an insane asylum. The fact that the friendship that these boys share is their escape from their troubled homes may, in fact, make the film resonant even more with viewers who come from a similar situations. Stand By Me is rare type of bitter sweet film that is most appreciated, and enjoyed, as adults, reminding us of the innocence and freedom of being a kid, while also reminding us that we no longer are one. Isn’t that really the essence of nostalgia?

Written on a bus from New York City to Atlantic City

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