In the 80s, we didn’t have hundreds of channels to choose from or the Internet, so you had to pick your videos (like your friends) wisely. There were a few films that at least one person in every group of friends owned and we watched repeatedly; Stand By Me was one of those. Thirty years on, I still love it but now watch it with very different eyes.
Back then, growing up in villages in Yorkshire, on the surface, we didn’t have much in common with those four young boys from 1950s Portland. And yet their friendships resonated with everyone. Those friendships that you may no longer have but you’ll never forget because of the experiences you had together. Some of them pivotal, some of them ridiculous: drinking cider by the river before youth club; smoking in the woods at school; or trading stories about boys that you snogged until your lips were numb.
Those friends and I could have full conversations made up entirely of quotes from the film: ‘shut up’ was suddenly a phrase nobody used, as they knew what they would get in return. And we’d kill ourselves laughing as we punched someone, and then they got two more for flinching. It never got tired.
As time has passed, Stand By Me’s message has remained constant but how I view the boys has changed. For many years, following River Phoenix’s tragic early passing, I couldn’t watch the film without great sadness for an actor’s loss. I couldn’t separate the actor from the character, especially when he (the character, Chris) fades out at the end. (Apologies for the spoiler.) I used to be in pieces. Now I have felt grief for peers that have gone, I see them in the ending.
This month, the film’s 30th anniversary, I sat with a friend (not one of those from school) and watched it again. And somehow I loved it even more. Or maybe it was a love rekindled. Or maybe it was a new deeper respect for the heart-wrenching subtle storytelling.
This time it was through the eyes of an adult, a teacher. I have taught the boys from the story: damaged boys who already feel like the future holds nothing for them. Some of the scenes I used to enjoy, as a teenager, were now tragic. Like when Teddy’s anger and grief about his father finally comes to a head with the junkyard owner. The creatively profane language used to make us chuckle as kids but now I was in tears, partly crying for the boys I taught reflected in those onscreen.
If you have never seen Stand By Me, or if it has been a while, I would urge you to watch. Rob Reiner often places the camera amongst the friends to make you feel like you are on the adventure with them. You feel their joy; you want to chip in with your views about who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. As they run away from the train, you can feel your limbs twitching – urging them to run faster. When they quietly reflect on their lives, you want to step in and reassure them, shake them into believing in something better.
It will leave you yearning for those carefree days when your friends were the only things that mattered. Or you can just get lost in some beautiful filmmaking. At a time when we were being bombarded with special effects and technology, Rob Reiner gave us this stripped down masterpiece that will make you laugh out loud, smile and cry, and want to look up those old friends on social media and see what they’re doing.
As the writer in Stand By Me famously says, “Friends come in and out of our lives… I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” My friendships now do seem very different to those when I was younger but they’re still built on the same foundations. We all need at least one Chris, the one who is kind but brutally honest with you, who pushes you to be your best, and sees the better version of you that you don’t see yourself. I am lucky because I have a few. We also need those we feel safe enough to cry in front of, when times are hard or maybe just watching a sad film; I need lots of those as I blub at everything. And the goofy ones we can let loose and laugh out loud with: at ourselves, at them and with them.
Now that DVDs are dying out, just like videos once did, I have a few left on my shelf that I can’t bring myself to give away, Stand By Me is one of them.