Everything There and Around Us

Stand by Me (1986)

Stand by Me (1986) | Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures
Shortly before we both became fathers, David and I hiked in the state park near his house. We’d gone to school together nearby, and life had taken us on circuitous routes—traveling for study, work, and all the freewheeling whims of the postcollege years—only to settle nearby again to start our families. My wife would soon deliver our first child, a girl, and a few months later, David’s wife would deliver their first—and, he told me now, they had recently learned it would be a boy1.

“How are you feeling about it?” I asked.

He didn’t answer right away. We just kept tromping through the brush that lay thick on the ground dusted by the late-summer light scattered by the towering pines all around us.

“I don’t think I would have said this before now,” he told me at last, “but I guess I thought a girl might be easier.”

I didn’t respond right away, either. That impulse is a tricky one to vocalize, but it’s one I was familiar with; the results of that ultrasound a few months earlier had been an undeniable relief. I felt basically versed in the conventional wisdom surrounding how best to instill strength and confidence in a young woman, but these weren’t tools I had at hand for a boy if I hoped to prevent him from succumbing to the violent and abusive behaviors that develop in so many young men.

“It’s just…” David said at last. “It’s a big responsibility.”

What he didn’t express—both because it was hard, and because he didn’t have to—was the underlying anxiety: How easily could he fail to raise his son well? And what pain might be the result?

I can’t say I was unpopular when I was 12, but only because that would imply my peers had particularly strong feelings about me. Rather than being liked or disliked I was just sort of there. I was invited to some events and excluded from others. I couldn’t possibly have said I had a best friend, but I could settle for being included more often than not.

This in-between social status made missing a week of school no particularly big deal. When I was struck by the flu and it became clear this would be no quick recovery, I felt neither disappointed by social engagements lost nor relieved by social discomfort avoided. More than anything, a sick week simply meant hours to fill. And so it was that I found myself that first day perusing my parents’ meager VHS collection, those tapes kept on a high shelf and mostly uninteresting to a boy whose taste trended towards animation and broad comedy. But I could feel the ground shifting under me at 12, a sense that my world might be on the verge of expanding, and so I scanned those spines that lay just beyond my grasp until I found one that piqued my curiosity: Stand by Me.

The kids on the box were my own age, but the rating was alarming: that big, bold R was associated with a whole galaxy of ideas and images that I didn’t feel quite ready to breach. What could possibly happen to these boys that might put their story outside the realm of my nascent sensibilities? Only one name in the credits block suggested what disturbance might lie in store. There, below the silhouetted image of four small bodies tromping past a lake in the predawn haze, were those thrilling and taboo words: Based on the novella by Stephen King.

“Oh, you can watch that,” my mother told me, immediately dismissive of the MPAA’s ruling. “It’s Stephen King, but it’s not—” I don’t remember what words she might have used to describe this not-a-Stephen-King movie, but her meaning was clear: while the author’s works were still forbidden, this one was an exception. This wasn’t a horror story. This was safe. This was appropriate.

I watched Stand by Me that day. The next day, I watched it again. I watched it the day after that, too, and every day for the remainder of my week at home. I felt drawn to this film in a way I never had before, longing each day to reimmerse myself in this soft-focused sun-dappled boy’s idyll, this world of pulp magazines and horse opera where a nearby radio always blasted Buddy Holly or The Chordettes. It’s a power that’s never weakened across countless revisits in the ensuing two decades, but still I wonder: what parts of me did this movie speak to as a preadolescent? Beyond the aesthetic pleasure, what compelled me to absorb Stand by Me into my daily routine for a full week?

There was an unquestionable thrill in seeing adolescent life honored with the production values and storytelling heft of adult drama. Taking place over two days in 1959, Stand by Me tells the story of four 12-year-old boys living lives of quiet desperation in small-town Oregon (swapped in for King’s original Maine setting, among the script’s few deviations from the source material). Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is a bright kid whose promising trajectory has been clouded by the recent death of his beloved older brother and the icy withdrawal he’s faced from his parents in the aftermath, while his best friend Chris (River Phoenix) is the prototypical kid from the wrong side of the tracks, written off by his community as a presumptive bad seed given the criminal tendencies of his family. Rounding out the quartet are Teddy (Corey Feldman), daredevil clown whose ears are irreparably damaged after his own father, a traumatized D-Day veteran, pressed them to a hot stove in a fit of rage, and baby-faced Vern (Jerry O’Connell), whose guileless daffiness bespeaks his lucky status as the sole character not battling outsized trauma.

It’s Vern who puts the plot in motion: Gordie, Chris, and Teddy are passing a lazy late-summer day playing cards and ragging on each other in their treehouse when Vern arrives with a massive scoop: he’s overheard his older brother discussing having found the corpse of Ray Brower, a missing boy their age, while joyriding a stolen car on a remote road in the next county. As his brother has no intention of alerting the authorities for fear of calling attention to his own misdeed, Vern invites his friends to join him in searching for the body. Lured by the dual promises of illicit excitement and local notoriety, the four grab bedrolls and canteens and embark on the overnight walk, unaware that psychotic teenager Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland) and his gang of goons have their own designs on finding the body and claiming the glory.

One could be forgiven for forgetting this ostensible intrigue. The pleasures of Stand by Me lie less in traditional plotting than in the loose and lazy flow of a day with friends. It’s an intention made clear from a theatrical poster dominated by one of the most unusual taglines in Hollywood history: If I could only have one food for the rest of my life? That’s easy. Pez. Cherry flavor Pez. No question about it. This is the statement of purpose set forth by Rob Reiner in the third of a nearly decade-long miracle run of masterpieces that began his directorial career: if this tagline confuses you, it might be best to walk on by. But if you’re intrigued, you’re in for a unique treat. Stand by Me is a film attuned to the downtime between moments of intrigue, the hours that kids fill with spitting contests, TV theme singalongs, idle assessments of celebrity attractiveness, and debates over the supremacy of fictional characters (Superman could defeat Mighty Mouse, Teddy concludes with unimpeachable kid logic, because Mighty Mouse is a cartoon while Superman is a real guy). Stand by Me pays tribute to the simple pleasures of bullshitting—and all the turbulent emotions we use that bullshit to suppress.

In the years following my initial weeklong marathon, it seemed clearest to me that Stand by Me served as an aspirational object. I longed for the type of friendship these boys shared, the sort of devotion and support they offered unquestioningly. I wanted friends I could feel safe crying with, something each character save Vern does at some point, sobbing unreservedly at the world’s overwhelming hostility while his friends rush to offer an ear and a shoulder. I wanted to be as essential to others as Gordie is to his friends, a bond evident in the centerpiece campfire scene, which sees the other three crowd around to listen adoringly as Gordie spins a yarn, periodically interrupting to laud his gifts as a storyteller (and if anything definitively marks Stand by Me as a plot-light hangout movie, it must be the story of Lardass’ revenge, the fully-produced and narratively insignificant short film to which Reiner devotes five of the film’s scant 89 minutes). This is Gordie’s destiny, as we learn in a pair of framing scenes that see him, now played by Richard Dreyfuss, as an evidently successful writer, and it’s his friends who push him to take this ability seriously despite his efforts to deny it. “Fuck writing,” he snarls at Chris, vehemently squashing his dream before the world has a chance. But Chris won’t be so easily dissuaded from believing in his best friend.

The film’s final line—typed rather than spoken, appearing green-on-black on the word processor into which adult Gordie has poured this story—is presented as an urgent truism: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” The line struck me with seismic force despite carrying no resonance with my own experiences. I was galvanized by the notion that I might be living through defining years of meaning and joy. If this was as good as it was going to get, I needed to try as hard as possible to create these relationships for myself as soon as possible, and so I studied this text endlessly, hoping I might emerge better equipped to find my version of this crew.

Stand by Me (1986) | Columbia Pictures

Twenty years on, it’s hard to guess which character I might most have seen myself in. I certainly outwardly resembled Vern, the overweight wallflower, and I often shared Teddy’s tendency to act out, offering myself as an object of scorn because at least negative attention was attention. I must have recognized in Gordie my wounded alienation exacerbated by turbulent hormones, an inner landscape that left me prone to lash out in ways that surprised and confused even me, not to mention the ambivalence I felt towards my emergent interests that I feared might send me even further off the path of social acceptance.

For the most part, I looked past Chris. I’m ashamed to say now that I fell prey to the same surface presumptions that cause Chris’ community to write him off, so distracted by his alpha swagger and the cigarette pack permanently rolled into the sleeve of his dusty white T-shirt that it wouldn’t be until years later that I recognized the foundation the character was laying for me.

Chris is unquestionably one of the guys; in his first moments onscreen, he tells a vile joke mixing xenophobia with bestiality. But he’s also by far the most emotionally intelligent member of the gang, empathic to a degree that seems borderline supernatural—in a fit of frustration with his friend’s self-defeating attitude, he snaps that he wishes he were Gordie’s dad so that he might raise him better, a level of caring it’s hard to believe any child could muster. But if this outrageous emotional availability befits the story’s status as Gordie’s memory play—which, as suggested by that term’s originator, Tennessee Williams, are most successful when allowed heavy poetic license, “for memory is seated predominantly in the heart”—it also characterizes Chris as the one boy so profoundly wounded by his upbringing that he retaliates in direct opposition, refusing to perpetuate another cycle of toxicity and abuse.

Stand by Me is a film about systems of patriarchal power and their failure to support and protect those they’re assigned to. Each of the boys (again save the blissfully unbothered Vern) is defined by abuse at the hands of an ostensible protector. Teddy obsesses over his father’s wartime heroism, recentering the narrative to obscure his breathtaking cruelty, while Gordie’s increasing tension and combativeness climaxes with a sobbing fit as he finally utters the words he’s suppressed to the point they’ve become poisonous: “My dad said it: I’m no good…He hates me.” This remarkable show of emotional openness follows the model Chris provided the prior night, when he sobbed on Gordie’s shoulder over the memory of a teacher who blamed him for her own petty theft, knowing nobody would believe Chris and thus proving in one fell swoop the world’s capacity for hostile indifference to a child’s heart.

Chris becomes a living rebuttal to this cruelty, and he uses his status as gang leader to demand a policy of sincere remorse and unequivocal forgiveness from his friends; “Chris,” as Gordie tells us repeatedly, “always made the best peace.” Whenever any of the gang feels betrayed or aggrieved—be it Gordie’s frustration that Chris allowed him to fire a loaded gun in what was meant to be a moment of play or Teddy’s incoherent rage after Chris prevents his possibly lethal “train dodge”—Chris calls the moment to a halt to recognize the other party’s feelings, admit his culpability, and settle the issue. Among the defining elements of Chris’ interiority is his recurring nightmare that he fails to save Teddy from falling out of a tree, and this inability to live with the idea of preventing either physical or emotional harm is not just the lodestone of his life but the cause of his death, as we learn from an opening scene in which adult Gordie processes the news that his old friend has died by stabbing while attempting to prevent an altercation in a restaurant. Having been forged in the fire of abuse, he becomes a martyr to the cause of peace.

As my mother so rightly noted, Stand by Me is not what we expect from Stephen King’s work—very much intentionally, drawn as it is from the 1982 collection Different Seasons, which was intended to demonstrate for the first time King’s facility with genres outside supernatural horror. But the lack of paranormal menace does not make the film any less a horror story. Rather than having their lives ahead of them, these four boys may well be living the best moments they’ll have the privilege of experiencing. “I’m in the prime of my youth, and I’ll only be young once!” Teddy crows to justify a moment of misbehavior, and given, as Gordie explains in his wrapup narration, that Teddy will be in prison within a few decades, it’s hard to begrudge his glee. The ruthlessness with which Rob Reiner relates the story is pure Stephen King—for all intents and purposes, Stand by Me is just It without the demonic clown—to the point that there is genuine foreboding in the climactic standoff that sees Ace threaten to slash Chris’ throat until Gordie holds him off at gunpoint. As demonstrated by the corpse lying just behind them, there’s little reason to presume every character will survive this story, and these life-or-death stakes are created willingly by Chris and Gordie, who refuse to budge no matter how Teddy begs them to surrender the body to Ace. What began as a lark has become a duty so solemn that after their near-lethal standoff, the quartet choose to report Ray’s location anonymously rather than claim the glory they’ve ostensibly earned. Given their familiarity with degradation and exploitation, they’re unwilling to degrade their peer’s memory by making his body a pawn in a game of vanity, whether Ace’s or their own.

Stand by Me refuses to condescend to its audience, representing preadolescence with absolute faithfulness. It allows its characters to talk the way young boys talk (i.e. with about as many instances of “fuck” and its derivatives as a Tarantino film) and it allows them opportunities to learn not through the trite lessons of typical coming-of-age fare so much as through the tumultuous trial and error that typifies the brief wilderness period between childhood and young adulthood. It’s a film with the capacity to do demonstrable good and as a reward for this honesty (as in the case of Eighth Grade more than 30 years later) the MPAA withheld it from the audience that could benefit most.

Thanks to my mother’s cooler head, I was able to grow up as a testament to the power of Stand by Me. It wouldn’t be long before I found the friends this film had taught me to look for, but the tail of the story’s impact would be far longer. My inner Vern, Teddy, and Gordie would hold sway across the majority of my adolescence as I alternated between moments of alienating outrageousness and bruised guardedness. But by my late teens I would feel secure enough in my identity to risk putting affectionate hands on my male friends and train myself to casually tell them, I love you.

This sort of unapologetic emotionality between men is still a taboo in much of American culture, and that sort of lifelong implicit training takes a great deal of effort to transcend. For all the increased vocabulary surrounding male gender presentation, for all the prevalence of terms like toxic masculinity and rape culture, it can so often seem that the forces of hate (incels and redpills, and proud boys, oh my!) are on the rise, metastasizing faster than anyone can keep up. For a year now I have lost sleep over the anonymously-published Washingtonian article “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right.” The story is a horror beyond anything Stephen King would envision, a tragedy of errors in which individuals and organizations committed to doing right by their young charges instead fumble their way into putting a vulnerable young man on a path to online radicalization, one his parents can’t possibly adapt fast enough to help guide him off of. “My husband and I poured everything we had into nurturing an empathetic, observant child,” the author writes of watching her son drawn into the noxious allure of so-called men’s rights groups. “Until then, it had seemed to be working.”

This is the fear that pushes men like myself and David—among the first of the true, good friends I found after my Stand by Me marathon—into that cowardly hope for daughters rather than sons, and we aren’t alone. A 2018 study showed that for the first time in nearly a century, prospective American parents demonstrate a significant preference for daughters. “Teenage boys and men are almost entirely the bad actors in certain crises the nation is facing,” wrote Claire Cain Miller in a New York Times piece pondering this historic reversal. “For parents, raising a girl can seem as if it’s about showing them all the things they can do, while raising a boy is telling them what not to do.”

Being father to a son means actively modeling proper conduct and behavior, but the responsibility can’t be written off simply by demonstrating how to be a good guy. If a young man spreads help rather than hurt in the world—except in the case of a heroic figure like Chris—it tends to be the result of conversations for which a father has precious few usable scripts, particularly when dads are still so often presented in pop culture as bumbling oafs who impart positive lessons half-accidentally after spending 22 minutes (plus commercial breaks) battling uphill against caveman instincts. It is so vital that we raise men with enough emotional awareness to process their roiling feelings with openness and vulnerability rather than violent mental isolationism, and as a father, it’s a task that can so easily feel overwhelmingly daunting.

Two years after our last hike before fatherhood, David and I were each blessed with a second child—another son for him, a first for me. Our boys are rowdy riots prone to love and kindness, but when we compare notes we often focus on how to handle their tantrums, those teapot tempests that see them use their bodies to express frustration. Their ineffectual attempts at retaliative damage can often be funny, but they’re deadly serious, too. My son’s emotions are so much more turbulent than his sister’s ever were, and—as is biologically typical for children assigned male at birth—his development lags behind hers. Where by his age she was well on her way to being a child, he is still so very much a baby, struggling to express himself with a body that grows only more powerful while his id remains stubbornly in control. Already I find myself sweating it when he lapses into another fit of hitting and throwing while sobbing with the same confused pain as Teddy, Gordie, or Chris. I hold him close to my heart while he screams, trying to help him regulate while I wonder, Am I doing it right? Or am I already failing to address the root of something that will flower into violence before I know it? The question may seem extreme, but I’d rather be too vigilant than not vigilant enough. 

But, I make sure to remind myself, he’s also in the prime of his youth, and he’ll only be young once. Raising him may be a responsibility, but it’s a gift, too—I’ve been offered the chance to help bring an agent of positive change into the world, and if I hold up my end of that bargain, then experiencing the beauty he spreads will be a lifelong reward. Cycles of gendered violence are powerful, but when they’re broken, it can be at least partially through a refusal to acknowledge their power, a lesson demonstrated in the final moments of Stand by Me.

Stand by Me (1986) | Columbia Pictures

On early viewings, the film’s coda struck me as nothing more than a cooldown after all the climactic intensity. But since my son’s birth, these final moments have hit with renewed force. We see that Gordie has become not just a writer but a father—and, it seems, an unremarkably good one. He is kind and present enough to take his son swimming with a friend, and his son feels safe enough to affectionately roll his eyes at his father’s idiosyncrasies. Gordie has broken the cycles of toxicity so deliberately that his son knows no other way, the privilege we should hope for every boy born into this too-hostile world. In a breathtaking final moment—after being chided for getting lost in a writing project despite the promised swimming trip, perhaps the most relatable moment in the entire film to my adult self—Gordie asks his son to indulge him for one final moment, and then looks directly into the camera lens, sharing a moment of quiet contemplation with the viewer over the sound and fury that’s come before and the hard-earned peace that’s followed. And then, just before finally calling it a day to go outside and horse around with his son, he types those final words: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.”

To be very candid, there are tears in my eyes as I type these final words of my own. Because while I may not have experienced that relationship with the friends I made when I was 12, I experienced it with the art I found. There’s something about that moment of individuation when you start to identify your tastes and interests, when art—works that you’ve discovered for yourself rather than the ones prescribed to you—can take hold and expand your consciousness like never before or after. That’s the art that forms the core from which the rest of a life can emerge, and Stand by Me is a film that helped change me into someone I’m proud to be. I hope it might some day do the same for my son. And if it doesn’t, then it gave me the tools to help him find his own equivalent. It’s a task as important as any other parenting responsibility. After all, I never loved any art later on like the art I loved when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?

  1. A brief disclaimer: I’m very much cognizant of the difference between assigned sex and gender identity, both in my writing and in my parenting. This essay deals with perspectives that could be construed as gender essentialism, which is by no means my intent. I am, however, cognizant as well that in many ways both within and beyond my control, sex and gender are still conflated. As a parent, it would strike me as my responsibility to consider all aspects of this sensitive issue, much as I may wish I were able to raise my children in a world that fully recognizes and understands this key distinction. I’m more trying to grapple honestly with the world as I perceive it through my ever-expanding personal lens.