Stand By Me, Adolescence, and Fear of Facing Change

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Stand By Me has a lot to say about childhood friends, the impact of family relationships, and growing up.  How a film made in the mid-eighties that’s set in the late fifties has proven to be a timeless masterpiece.

I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being. It happened in the summer of 1959-a long time ago, but only if you measure in terms of years.” – Gordie Lachance (narrating the first lines of Stand By Me)

STAND BY ME, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman, 1986. (c)Columbia Pictures. Courtesy: Everett Collection

I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw Stand By Me.  It was not the first R-rated film I watched, (I was a big fan of 80s Schwarzenegger flicks), but it was the first serious R-rated film.  Based on the short story “The Body” by Stephen King, director Rob Reiner crafted a 90-minute film packed with more honesty, emotion, and truth most films can muster with twice the running time.  The film is celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer.  But Stand By Me was more than just a film when I first watched it.  It was like watching my childhood play out on screen.  The film provided me language to connect to my own turmoil and fear I was enduring at that early stage of my life.

STAND BY ME, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, 1986. (c)Columbia Pictures. Courtesy: Everett Collection

The story is framed around Gordie Lachance (played by Wil Wheaton), the central character and narrator who reflects back to Labor Day weekend 1959 in the small town of Castle Rock, Oregon.  He and his three best friends; lovable, goofball Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell), volatile Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and the sensitive but tough Chris Chambers (the late River Phoenix).  The four 12-year-old buddies decide to hike along the train tracks into the countryside in search of the body of a missing boy likely hit and killed by a train.  The journey gives way to an exploration on mortality, friendship, and the scary shift from grade school to junior high.

Eerily Accurate and Autobiographical

In celebrating its 30th anniversary, recent appraisals of the film have lauded how well it has aged and stood the test of time.  Simply put, the film is just as good, if not better, after all these years.  Credit should start with director Rob Reiner who wisely employed child actors who were the age of their characters and therefore looked the part and talked the way normal 12-year-olds spoke to one another.  The amount of profanity may shock some adults, but crass and profane dialogue was not foreign to me.  By the time I saw the film in 1988, this 12-year-old had regularly dabbled in smoking cigarettes (my dad had the taste for unfiltered Marlboros), drinking alcohol (I discovered early on in my life I do not like Tequila), and shoplifting (how else was I supposed to finance my baseball card collection?).  Some could argue that I was out of control.  Others may have remarked that I was not properly supervised.  All I knew was when I watched the campfire scene when the boys remark,

Vern: Nothing like a smoke after a meal.
Teddy: Yeah … I cherish these moments.

I understood their sentiments.  And yet, despite the mature subject matter and behaviors, the film spends ample time reminding the viewer that they are still kids who still have their moments of absurdity often associated with childhood, like the philosophical question “Do you think Mighty Mouse can beat Superman?”

The film’s honest touch also must be credited to the author of its source material.  Stephen King has spoken about the autobiographical nature of the filmKing attended a one-room schoolhouse in Durham, Maine for the fifth and sixth grade with four other children.  He recalled how those four kids inspired the characters in Stand By Me.  “There’s a lot of stuff in ‘The Body’ that’s just simply history that’s been tarted up a little bit,” said King.

King has also reflected on his own childhood experiences, stating “I was prey to a lot of conflicting emotions as a child.   I had friends and all that, but I often felt unhappy and different.  I was terrified and fascinated by death – death in general and my own, in particular.” 

Stand By Me - FriendsThe film also provided autobiographical aspects for some of the actors as wellWil Wheaton has stated all four actors at the time were very much like the characters they were portraying.  He himself has often spoken about his own anxiety, shyness, and awkwardness he experienced as a kid.  Wheaton also remembers Corey Feldman’s cruelty toward him to the point that both River Phoenix and Rob Reiner had to intervene and tell Corey to lay off Wil. The hardest role to fill was Corey Feldman’s Teddy Duchamp, because the casting director had the difficulty finding a child actor who could come across that angry.  Corey Feldman has commented that his personal life was so tumultuous and abusive that he didn’t have difficulty tapping into any emotional space to portray Teddy.

A Film That Portrays Boys Showing Vulnerability With One Another

Stand By Me showed the space where naïveté makes way for the terrible truths of the grown-up world.

Gordie: Do you think I’m weird?
Chris: Definitely. 
Gordie: No man, seriously.  Am I weird?
Chris: Yeah, but so what?  Everybody’s weird.

Chris and Gordie worry about growing up and what it’ll mean for their friendship.  Gordie, recognizing that Chris knows him better than his parents, fears that they will grow apart and fade out of each other’s lives.  Chris encourages Gordie to excel in his life without consideration to him or his parents.  Stand By Me became a classic because it understood the shifting landscape of late childhood into early adolescence.  How many films show kids to be scared, insecure, and damaged like many are in real life?

We Don’t Get to Choose Our Parents

The topic of family, and parents in particular, is central to the film.  Up to that point in my young life, I hadn’t been exposed to a film or story that was a commentary on my own life.  Stand By Me provided language and emotions to my own story.

I am a child of adoption, a Korean kid raised by a Caucasian family.  In my early elementary-age days, life already proved to be tumultuous and unstable.  My father’s repeated infidelity eventually led to my parents’ divorce during my third grade year.  All of the sudden, we had to move out of my childhood home.  I had to start the fourth grade at a new school, leaving behind my best friends.  I would not have been able to verbalize it at the time, but it was clear that I was filled with sadness, worry, and anger at a young age.  Like many kids, and like the character of Teddy, I buried my emotions with the façade of humor.  I became a jokester.

I found solidarity with Teddy, Chris, and Gordie.  I understood how the actions of parents profoundly impact the lives of their children.  Beneath Teddy’s playful demeanor is a rage that is easily triggered.  And although his trauma has been at the hands of his father, Teddy is not capable of reconciling his image of a heroic war veteran for the mentally ill, abusive man that mutilated his ear in what is implied to be a post-traumatic fit.  In a scene that is both touching and disturbing, Teddy flips out when the junkyard man trashes his dad, calling him a “loony.”

Chris likewise struggles with the expectations that are assigned him by virtue of his family reputation.  Known as a family full of crooks and booze-hounds, Chris tearfully confesses his pain that by virtue of his name, people will assume the worst of him or assume the worst to come from him.  When River Phoenix delivered his sorrowful monologue, it registered with my own shame and embarrassment.  I was extremely self-conscious after my parents’ divorce.  I was embarrassed by the rental house we lived in and having to be a part of the free-lunch program at my school.  I felt humiliated that all my best friends came from affluent, intact families.  I tried to hide from others, and block in my own mind, the shame of my clothes and receiving government handouts.  And I was certain everyone else was greatly disturbed by my family’s descent below the poverty line.

I may have identified with Teddy’s volatility, but it was Gordie’s relationship with his family that struck a nerve.  My older brother Vincent never died, but my relationship with both him and my father significantly changed after my parents’ divorce.  First off, Vincent decided to live with my dad while I choose to stay with my mother and our two older sisters.  I remember visiting the two of them in Oregon as a middle-schooler, and it would be impossible to miss how neglectful and absent my father was as a parent and caregiver.  I don’t ever recall my father cooking a meal for me.  Vincent and I were left to fend for ourselves.  The lack of presence by my father was simultaneously freeing and lonely.  I would visit my father for an entire summer and spend very little time with him.  Later on, in my eighth grade year, my brother called my mom to inform her that he and my dad had moved across the country to Florida.  This was the furthest distance from my home state of Washington.  I would not see my father or brother again for close to six years.  In the past twenty-five years, I’ve seen my father for a total of twentysomething hours of time, spread over two decades and six separate get-togethers.  I’ve only spent a bit more time with my brother over that same time period.

Stand By Me - CryingGordie’s growth centers on the death of his brother and his relationship with his father.  He struggles with his father ignoring and underappreciating him.  Gordie cannot make sense of his own grief, and having never cried at his brother’s funeral, he is driven to go find and see the dead body of Ray Brower.  By the end of the film, Gordie not only achieved what he set out to do, he has the perspective that whatever neglect he has experienced at the hands of his father is not his doing but his father’s issue.

Changing Childhood: Growing up in the 50s, 80s, and the 21st Century

Now, many years removed from my childhood days, I am a licensed psychotherapist.  I work with young guy, many who encounter social struggles and the inevitable changes that come with life.  They range from middle school age to their late-twenties.  Some have started college.  Others have relocated for work.  All are tackling change, and they all, in some fashion, are scared and unsure of themselves.

Was my childhood unique, have things always been hard for young guys, or has friendship for boys changed over time?  It’s probably not an either/or scenario.  Certainly a lot has changed in our culture since the mid-eighties and even more so since the late fifties.  But what are some of those changes that could impact how boys develop friendships?

Helicopter parenting.  This generation of over-anxious, over-involved parents has impacted children’s upbringing.  I remember on weekends and summers leaving my home early in the day and returning for dinner.  No cell phones, no checking in, no monitoring or tracking devises.

Lifestyle changes.  I don’t remember having any homework until middle school.  And if I did have any occasional assignments, it did not consume any significant chunk of my free time.  Nowadays, some children as early as kindergarten are coming home with homework.  Any amount of homework will decrease social time for young children.

Recess and Scheduled Social Outlets.  I remember every stage of school focusing on academics but also being a hub for social and recreational outlets.  Structured and scheduled social time help timid or shy kids form friendships.  A lot of kids struggle initiating activities and reaching out to others.  We’ve seen this change also happen with recreational sporting activities.  More and more, kids are having less opportunity to engage in sports where the focus is not on high-level competition but teamwork, sportsmanship, and fun.

Sedentary and Individualistic Lifestyle.  So if kids aren’t off roaming the neighborhood and combing nearby woods for mischievous fun, what are many of them doing?  They are at home, doing homework at a young age, playing video games, watching Netflix, and living a lifestyle that is becoming increasingly more sedentary.  Research points to a growing epidemic in teenage obesity.

Not All Change Is Bad (or Scary)

It’s fashionable to romanticize the past and lament the passage of time.  However, this generation of young people are fortunate to have a number of positives changes that were absent or not as strong in generations past.

Decline in youth crime and violence.  Despite what social media and anxious parents may tell you, it has never been a safer time to grow up.

Tolerance and inclusiveness.  This generation is more accepting and tolerant of different religious faiths, sexuality, and racial backgrounds.

Geek Culture.  The lines between the popular and outcast are becoming more blurred.  Interests that in the past would have been considered idiosyncratic and uncool are now more mainstream.

Decrease in risky behaviors.  This includes a steady decrease in drug and alcohol consumption, binge drinking, driving while intoxicated, teenage sexual activity and teenage pregnancy.

Different Times, Same Hopes, Fears, and Insecurities

Stand By Me - CoinWhat does that all mean?  Nothing except that each generation has a set of challenges they face in early adolescence.  And each generation is rewarded with opportunities that may not exist for others in different eras.  Watching Stand By Me is an invitation to reflect on one’s own childhood experiences, the good and the bad.  I’m watching my own children grow up in a very different time.  But the prospect of growing up is always in some way scary.  And the power of friends, and the pain of family, can stay with you long after they cease to be a part of your daily life.  Gordie’s final words summarize the specialness of that time of one’s life:

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.  Jesus, does anyone?”

2 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoyed reading this commentary after watching this brilliant film for the umpteenth time. It does get better with age and that’s because we can identify with the emotions of the boys at some point in our lives and especially as a twelve year old. Thanks for sharing, you have given me plenty of scope for discussion with students.

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