Childhood is a slippery concept. One day we’re reading comics with grubby, chocolate-stained fingers at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, the next day it’s a rush through university, work, marriage and whatever else we take as a synecdoche for adulthood. Sometimes we are ignorant dwellers on the threshold, or else dragged kicking and screaming across this boundary by a stark moment of realization or trauma. Stand By Me (1986) is a gem in the coming-of-age genre, which really could be better thought of as an umbrella of different films, ranging from quasi-autobiographies, adventure, to social melodrama. It blends an introspective exploration of friendship, trauma and childhood aspirations with moments of feel-good comedy and a qualified sense of wonder.
Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella The Body is relatively short and simple, as far as epic journeys go. Although it drips with 1980s Americana, its four protagonists act on irresistible, universal impulses. The chance to locate the body of a boy hit by a train, and the opportunity to become town heroes, prompts a two-day-long journey along railroad tracks and into the woods. There are many memorable, humorous episodes: a scramble in a junkyard to escape the foreman’s infamous dog (‘Chopper, sic balls!’), a pie-eating contest and parable of injustice relayed over campfires, or the matter-of-fact narration (“We talked all into the night, the kind of talk that feels important until you discover girls.”) spanning Vern’s (chubby 12-year old Jerry O’Connell) love for cherry-flavoured Pez, or what exactly Goofy is. However, when bearing in mind the motivation for this journey, there’s a real sense of danger. At one point, for example, the four encounter a train hurtling down a bridge with nowhere else to go, with Gordie (Wil Wheaton) and Vern inches from death.
And indeed, family dysfunction, death and grief haunt this trip. Gordie grapples with the death of his older brother Dennis, while the town’s perception of Teddy Duchamp’s (Corey Feldman) father as a madman is at odds with his own image of himself as a war hero. Death remains a sobering encounter. When buying provisions with the handful of coins the group has left, the storeowner reminds Gordie that “in the midst of life we are in death”. At the climatic encounter with the body of Ray Brower, Gordie bursts into tears, comforted by Chris. They are simultaneously cognizant of their own self-interest – in the thrill of the search, and the promises of fame, not the dignity human beings deserve – as well as the promises their own futures bring; in Gordie’s case his knack for storytelling. Not every question can be resolved in a two-day trip: the issue of parents’ love, getting respect from one’s neighbours, and the possibility of a wasted future all linger.
“I think most good stories about boys are about journeys”, King muses in a featurette. In hindsight, there’s as much that the film excludes about childhood as it encapsulates – lamentably the experiences of girls and women. There are references to characters’ mothers, who serve as much as figures to disappoint as much as they are of discipline or respect. Yet, my own adolescence developed in largely male spaces, namely three different boys’ schools in Singapore, and if national narratives are to be believed, came to a crushing halt in the hypermasculine institution that was military conscription. As for the prism of the journey? It is useful to some extent: Joseph Campbell’s framework of mythmaking and discussion of journey posits a ‘hero with a thousand faces’, where a heroic sequence of actions sees the protagonist achieving and completing something supernormal, undergoing a ritual of initiation and growth. However, Stand By Me carefully navigates this idea of heroism. Immature boyishness and naivety are never glamorised, even as there is a distinct transition which the four have experienced by the end of the film.
I did not encounter this film at my favourite cinema, or through family tradition. Rather, it was screened in secondary school, a class I think was called Character and Leadership Education. Some enterprising schoolteacher might’ve written up a brief summary of the film, or its themes, to get it cleared for classes: puberty, entering the next stage of school, interpretations of adulthood and death. I might’ve done a worksheet on it: what struck you most about Gordie and Chris’ relationship, et cetera. But years later the film still evokes a sense of sentimentality, especially given its conscious treatment of the passage of time. The journey to see a dead body represents a brief moment where the lives of four boys were briefly intertwined: in the aftermath of the journey they unravel again, to the point where close companions come to just be passing faces in a school corridor. “It happens sometimes, friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant”, Gordie reflects. Chris, who successfully became a lawyer, meets an untimely death intervening in a fight. As for me: I’m still close friends with some people I sat with in that classroom; others have indeed drifted apart.
The film ends on a melancholic and wistful note, even as it celebrates a period of life irrevocably past. It is a reminder to treasure wide-eyed innocence and wonder, but not to sidestep growing pains; a call to appreciate companionship even as it comes and goes. “…I never had any friends on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”