“The vegan James Dean”. That’s how popular culture chooses to remember River Phoenix, if at all. One time teen heartthrob, musician and Academy Award nominee (Best Supporting Actor in Running on Empty, 1988), nowadays his memory is but an interesting afterthought – a footnote to the biography of his younger brother, Joaquin.
But River was more than that, so much more. In twenty-three short years he’d lived a lifetime, filling each ‘unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.’ Just another washed up, burnt out 1980s child star? Hardly, and that is the real tragedy: that someone so full of life, so attuned to the pulse and rhythm of the world around him could be reduced to a couple of lines in an obituary and ‘do-you-remember-when’ filler-articles on the back of magazine clippings.
Born and raised in a family of hippies, River’s was an unusual childhood, to say the least. Movies like The Mosquito Coast (1986) found an unlikely parallel in his own upbringing alongside the controversial cult, ‘The Children of God,’ and busking on the streets of Caracas, in Venezuela. However, it was the coming-of-age classic, Stand by Me (1986), and River’s disarming performance as Chris Chambers that ushered in his rise to fame. From then on, the PETA activist moved from strength-to-strength, not content to cash-in his pay cheques, but to make movies – movies that meant something.
Speaking with Charlie Rose, Ethan Hawke tells how “My Own Private Idaho  was the bar for young men” carving out a career for themselves. This raunchy independent film, the story of a narcoleptic gay hustler venturing out in search of his estranged mother, was a bold choice by River. It sang of promise, although promise cut short. It’s true, River’s brilliance was never fully realised – neither in music nor on the big screen. Yet, it’s the hint – that inkling of what could have been – that toys with our indispensible capacity for wonder, and leads us to beg the question: ‘What if?’