Retro Review: ‘I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.’

By By John Fitzgerald

By John Fitzgerald

Summertime is movie time. More often than not we hear the boring term “summer blockbuster,” which refers to a recent big-budget Hollywood juggernaut (“Wanted” comes to mind). Picture a giant beach ball getting tossed around-it might be fun to play with for a while, but in the end delivers little.

In this old-movie review, which I hope to keep writing alongside the new-movie reviews, I would like to address a film that is 100 percent summer by nature, a refined juggernaut if you will-one that doesn’t lack substance and one that departs radically from our preconceived ideas of what a “blockbuster” should be. The film is “Stand by Me” and the story “happened in the summer of 1959.”

“Stand by Me” is set in the town of Castle Rock, Ore., a fictional town used in several Stephen King novels. “Stand by Me” is based on King’s novella “The Body.”

The story is told by a middle-aged author, Gordie, played by Richard Dreyfus. He narrates, through his writing, the story of his young teens, when he and his friends set out on a journey to find the body of Ray Brower, a local teenager who was killed by a train.

Even though most of us haven’t ventured with friends to look for a dead body, the film finds a powerful way to quickly move past and ultimately far beyond the search. It finds a sensitivity deep within us all that recognizes a special time in our lives, a time that cannot be relived-a commonality achieved during the summers of our youth. Sleepovers, lying, stealing, secret knocks, dirty magazines and all the other generally healthy mischief of adolescence.

To make things more interesting for Gordie and his friends and their attempt to find Brower, Ace Merrill (played by a young Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang also try to find the body. They have a car, which gives them a considerable advantage over Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern, who have to walk two days just to get to the spot where they think the body might be located.

The performances are solid all around as a result of excellent casting, fantastic direction (Rob Reiner’s best) and a memorable screenplay. The performance of River Phoenix as Gordie’s best friend, Chris Chambers, is particularly effective, both in terms of character study, and considering his wonderful career was cut short by his untimely death. Phoenix was hailed as highly talented by critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and was acknowledged as one of the most promising new actors of the year in 1986. After viewing “Stand by Me” one would be hard-pressed to disagree.

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