The great myth of manhood is statuesque strength, and it's a myth that casts an especially long shadow over those still waiting on their growth spurts. Along with a Hollywood touch of savvy showmanship, Rob Reiner's Stand by Me exquisitely captures the vulnerability not only of youth, but of the male identity.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” That key line from Stephen King's novella The Body makes its way into Reiner's film, which King called the first successful film adaptation of his work. King's coming-of-age tale about four friends who are "twelve going on thirteen" gets to the heart of true friendship: the powerful bond of shared experience and, joshing aside, mutual acceptance and support through thick and thin. King's story begins, "The most important things are the hardest things to say...you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear."
Secrets emerge, under pressure, when the four friends go on a small-scale adventure with big implications. Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell) hear tell of a body in the woods around their small town of Castle Rock, Oregon, in 1959. Compounding the dread of the body are the details of the victim, a boy the same age as the gang of friends. The boy's sensational disappearance convinces the gang that they've stumbled on their ticket to local fame: they can find the body, report it, and become local heroes. Fringe benefit: they can test their burgeoning manhood with a four-way dare to look death in the face. As they go off the grid, the boys take their first, formative steps toward independence, breaking away but in the comforting company of friends.
Along with their first experience of mortality, the boys contend with what lies on the other side of maturity. That struggle begins at home, or rather broken homes, where dubious role models force the boys to seek guidance in the de facto family that is their gang, in the home away from home that is their treehouse. Maturity attracts and repulses the boys: they're drawn to the possibilities they see in taboo behaviors (sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll) but mortified by their brutish, violent doppelgangers (a gang of bullies led by Kiefer Sutherland's "Ace").
The overweight, ineffectual, picked-on Vern probably can't imagine what he has to look forward to in the future: a people person, he's happy enough to be included in the present. But his friends all have conspicuous reasons to fear what time and tide will make them become. Especially in his father's eyes, the sensitive Gordie can never live up to his football-star older brother (John Cusack), frozen in time by a fatal accident, unless perhaps Gordie falls into the same fate. Tough-guy Chris has been branded with the stigma of his family, known as criminals and alcoholics, and he's expected to follow in their footsteps. Teddy has similar concerns that he'll fall into the familial cycle of mental instability and abusive behavior he sees in his father.
By default, the boys do their best to project what's seen as "cool" and pretend not to be rattled to the core by these existential fears: after all, the man code insists upon confident, stoic aloofness, not emotional sharing and caring. But away from home, by the flicker of firelight, the boys taste liberation from a society that has already decided who they are and who they will become, so they tacitly agree to judge not, lest they be judged.
Their heroes' journey affords opportunities to learn from each other's example and thereby cross boundaries. Gordie's sensitive soul of an artist, for example, inspires Chris to open up about his fears and even violate the injunction that boys don't cry. From Chris, Gordie learns first hand (not just from Superman and Mighty Mouse) that standing up with a show of strength can be righteous and, better yet, that he has untapped inner reserves to draw from. Despite jocular mocking, the boys implicitly accept and celebrate their differences, understanding on an unconscious level that they complement each other.
Of course, Stand by Me gets much of its power from its potent nostalgia (a Stephen King trademark) for the music and TV and movies and fashions and social rites of 1959 (rolled back a year from The Body's 1960): the Ben E. King title tune; the Chordettes' "Lollipop"; Wagon Train; Disney ("Alright, alright, Mickey's a mouse, Donald's a duck, Pluto's a dog. What's Goofy?"); T-shirts, jeans, and Converse hi-tops; "chicken" and "two for flinching," those ageless male tests of strength proven by, respectively, showing no fear and showing no pain.
Reiner's confident direction also elicits four brilliant juvenile performances. All four resonate, through humor and/or pathos, but the preternaturally talented Phoenix made the greatest impression, instantly launching him on the path to stardom. As Wheaton reflected in a 2011 NPR interview, "Rob Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played," and the film's film-ending description of the boys' adult lives (though softened from King's story) has an extra twinge of sadness given Phoenix's 1993 death, at the age of 23.