Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Stand by Me’: Ode to Boyhood and the Ingredients of Male Bonding

May 8, 2020 Updated: May 8, 2020

R | | Adventure, Drama | 26 November 1986 (USA)

Rob Reiner’s magical movie “Stand by Me” is an ode to boyhood, a classic Hero’s Journey, a rite of passage to manhood, and an exemplary depiction of the key ingredients of true male friendship.

It might be the best thing world-renowned horror novelist Stephen King ever wrote (it’s from his novella “The Body”) and definitely Reiner’s crowning lifetime achievement, “When Harry Met Sally” notwithstanding. King, unsurprisingly, has actually called “Stand by Me” the first successful film adaptation of his writing, not to mention that it launched River Phoenix to superstardom.

I saw “Stand by Me” with my brother when it first came out in 1986. We both walked out of the movie theater completely pole-axed with melancholy. My German girlfriend said, “Vot’s ze metter viss you two?” It was Richard Dreyfuss’s character’s line at the end: “I never really had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. … Does anyone?” That destroyed us.

four boys going camping in "Stand By Me"
(L–R) Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman star in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

This is a haunting fact and a true wellspring of great sadness for most men: There are generally no friendships for men later in life that can compare with the intense bonds 12-year-old boys are able to forge.

Boys!

I’ll get to the review in a minute. But, so—I went to have a slice about two weeks before COVID-19 social distancing hit, and I’m sitting there in a Little Italy pizza joint off Union Square, in NYC, when 15 (or so) 12-year-old boys swarmed the place.

I was entertained for the remainder of my pepperoni slice by the intense testosterone buzz, the excitement of young life, the passion, humor, competitive ribbing, spontaneous slap-fight flurries, mini-alphas holding court at various tables, snarking, hooting, crowing, guffawing, backslapping, food-flicking—and the collective, simultaneous head swivel and instantaneous pin-drop silence when two little beauties walked by. And after the slack-jawed, bug-eyed pause—the explosion of chatter to dispel the mass yearning.

A big pack of little boys is a nonstop comedy show. It’s why I was a summer camp counselor for years until they wore me out. And to think that it’s become trendy to consider the above as a breeding ground for “toxicity.”

3 boys goofing off in "Stand By Me."
(L–R) Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and River Phoenix star in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

Here’s the reason you can never find friends like your boyhood friends: There are three key ingredients to male bonding. Actually … wait a minute—you know what? I’m going to save that for the end. You’ll just have to keep reading.

Outer Journey

“Stand by Me” tells the tale of four childhood best-buds who, in the summer of 1959, hang out in a most excellent tree house. They do pinkie swears, engage in debates about whether Mighty Mouse could beat up Superman (also which phylum, genus, and species, exactly, does Goofy belong to?), play cards, and sneak cigarettes. It’s that magical boy-time before the awareness of girls hits.

four boy in a tree house in "Stand By Me"
(L–R) Jerry O’Connell, River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, and Corey Feldman star in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

Low man on the totem pole—the chubby, clueless Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) happens to serendipitously eavesdrop on two teens from the local, older gang talking about a dead body they saw, of one of Vern’s (et al) classmates who’d gone missing from their town of Castle Rock, Oregon.

Vern immediately spills the beans to his buds. His friends are the budding artist-writer Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton); Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), the tough-but-golden-hearted kid from the town’s bad-reputation (criminals and alcoholics) family; and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), the slightly unhinged kid whose former-soldier dad once held Teddy’s left ear to a red-hot stove.

Well now, if you’re a bunch of boys, and you’ve never seen a dead body (and it’s your classmate to boot), that’s an absolute must-see. And so off they go with vintage, rolled-up sleeping bags and Boy Scout canteens, over hill and dale, through copses, wheat fields, and along railroad tracks.

four boys walking on railroad tracks in "Stand By Me"
Boys on an adventure in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

The overt plan is to find the body, be heroes, and get their names in the local paper. The implicitly understood, unspoken reason to go on this journey: They can collectively cross the boundary into manhood by supporting each other in overcoming their existential dread. Acknowledging mortality at a young age is an ordeal, especially bearing witness to the violent death and dead body of someone your own age.

dead body in bushes in "Stand By Me"
Kent W. Luttrell as Ray Brower, the dead kid, in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

Inner Journey

They’ve all got struggles to overcome at home. In addition to the two bad homes just mentioned, the sensitive Gordie fears he can never live up to his football-hero older brother’s (John Cusack) reputation, deeply mourns his brother’s recent death, and aches at his father’s indifference to his existence.

This is a story set in the American 1950s, a boy-world of white T-shirts, Converse Chucks, and faded dungarees, where the inner-warrior quadrant still meant something to men. And, like tiger cubs wrestling, the boy-games of two punches in the shoulder for flinching, and “chicken”—while definitely play—were also practice for the manhood warrior traits of fearlessness and indifference to pain.

four boys around a campfire in "Stand By Me"
(L–R) Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman star in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

Speaking of which, they’re not the only ones looking for the body; the older boys square off with the little boys. But the older boys are bullies, whereas the little boys cross over into manhood and discover that in facing their fears, they’re suddenly not afraid of wielding the .44 Magnum they originally toted along just for pure awesomeness.

two boys, on holding gun, in "Stand By Me"
Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton, L) and Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) fend off the older gang of bullies in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

“OMG! That’s toxic masculinity in the making!” No it’s not. It’s the inner warrior being born. The males of all species, human and animal, traditionally stand guard on the boundaries and territories, and most females are happy with that arrangement. It’s what testosterone was made for.

teen with switchblade in "Stand By Me"
Ace (Kiefer Sutherland, L), the alpha bully, and Charlie Hogan (Gary Riley) in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

Rob Reiner knows boyhood and calls forth, direction-wise, four brilliant boyhood performances to rival anything adults can do. River Phoenix’s performance shone brightest; his star was hereby launched.

The movie’s most magical, atmosphere-laden moment can be found at 1:19:00, when the boys journey homeward in silence, their rite of passage complete. The music—which sounds to be a cello and glass harp, in an ethereal, hymnal rendering of the chord progression of Ben E. King’s song “Stand by Me”—is a requiem for the passing of boyhood and will cause intense nostalgia, deep sadness, and yearning in men.

two boys have a hug in "Stand By Me"
Chris Chambers (River Phoenix, L) comforts Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

The Eternal Ingredients to Male Bonding

Here’s the connection boys unknowingly have, and what men often wish for, for the rest of their lives: 1) Boys know each other’s deepest, darkest secrets. 2) Boys have the opportunity to get physically naked in front of each other. 3) Boys cry unashamedly in front of each other. Ever seen a Little League game? The all-out crying of boys, over loss, is fantastic. It gets harder and harder to find that winning combo as one moves into manhood—the ingredients that forge undying brotherhood.

Men eventually find all of that threatening in our current society. Ironically, it’s the world’s toughest men, in times of war, who know each other’s deepest and darkest secrets, are often naked in front of each other, and mourn together fellow warriors killed in battle. They have no secrets from each other. The only thing more powerful than all these ingredients is saving another man’s life in battle.

three naked boys go swimming in "Stand By Me"
(L–R) Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman, and River Phoenix star in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

Fortunately, men have, for the last 20 years, figured out how to do this outside of war; they have legitimately figured out how to retrieve those magical friendships in the here and now. All it takes to find it is curiosity and a Google search. Hint: MKP-NWTA.

Four boys bump fists in "Stand By Me"
(L–R) River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman star in “Stand by Me.” (Columbia Pictures)

‘Stand by Me’
Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, John Cusack, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, Casey Siemaszko
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 26, 1986
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch