This writer (Richard Dreyfuss) has read in the newspaper today of the death of a childhood friend, pointlessly killed in a brawl he was trying to stop. This sets him thinking, and then to writing, as he recalls a significant couple of days in his life where he and three other friends went exploring around their Oregon smalltown home of Castle Rock. They would regularly meet up in their treehouse, Gordie (Wil Wheaton), whose brother had died recently, Chris (River Phoenix), who was thought to be from a bad family, Teddy (Corey Feldman), whose dangerously unhinged father had attacked him more than once, and Vern (Jerry O'Connell), the butt of everyone's jokes...
For a few years after the death of River Phoenix, it was common to hear the opinion that for such a promising talent, he had never actually appeared in a classic film that showed that to his best ability. But then the cult of Stand By Me really took hold, whether because of audiences latching onto the tragedy and mirroring of Phoenix's life with that of his Chris character's, or because they felt it spoke to them about their own childhoods in a way that few other films did. So now you can say that although River did not have the chance to make as many movies as he should have done, at least he made this, which has a legion of fans across the globe.
It was taken from the Stephen King collection of novellas, Different Seasons, which another work regarded as a classic was drawn from, The Shawshank Redemption (an adaptation of Apt Pupil was not so well received, and the remaining story, The Breathing Method, has never been filmed). A semi-autobiographical effort, it saw King in nostalgic mood as he reminisced on how he felt about his childhood at the end of the fifties, including bits and pieces inspired by his actual experiences. With director Rob Reiner at the helm, that sense of nostalgia was very much present in this, with its golden-hued imagery and selection of vintage pop hits on the soundtrack, maybe a cliché by this time, over a decade after American Graffiti, but well implemented for all that.
This had a harder edge than many coming of age tales, as King himself observed he could not entirely eliminate the note of the macabre in his work, and so the main characters' youthfulness is contrasted with something that should only really have troubled them nearer the end of their lives, and that was death. Before the story has even begun, Gordy has lost his beloved brother, and the whole adventure the four of them embark upon is all centred around the fascination of seeing an actual dead body. Vern has eavesdropped upon a conversation by two of the tough guys who strike terror into their hearts, which concerns the location of a missing kid who has, unbeknownst to the wider public, been killed in an accident.
Once Vern tells this to the other three, their curiosity is piqued and they set about planning to go and see for themselves before the authorities take it away, and besides, they can always announce the discovery themselves once they've located the corpse and play town heroes for a while. So in essence Stand By Me is a road movie where the road, or even a vehicle, does not feature as the boys venture out on foot along the railway track to their destination. In truth, if it were not for all that glow of fond recollection this would be pretty thin stuff, enough for the printed page but undernourished for a ninety minute movie, yet a sense of genuine camaraderie between the four young actors helped considerably. Even so, it does lapse into sentiment too readily - did we need each of our heroes to break down in tears at some point in the journey? - but the menace of Kiefer Sutherland's gang offers much-needed tension for what could have been undemanding. Plus they did include the pie-eating story: once seen, never forgotten. Music by Jack Nitzsche.