Now and Then is a sweet, fun film about friendship, coming-of-age, and…death. It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the 1995 film, but death is all over Now and Then. It’s only through confronting the reality of death (through a white suburban lens) that the four girls at the heart of the story are able to move forward from childhood to adulthood. They confront other adulthood realities, too—divorce, the fallibility of parents, first romantic/sexual interactions and hormones—but death is the one that touches them all.
At the start of the film, four friends come together in their hometown of Shelby, Indiana as one of the women (Rita Wilson) prepares to give birth, owing to a long-ago promise they made to always be there for one another. During their reunion, the writer of the group—Samantha, played as an adult by Demi Moore—reminisces about the summer said promise was made, and much of the film takes place as a flashback to the summer of 1970, when the girls were 12. During that summer, the four core characters are forced to grapple with death after first treating it like something of a game. They learn what every human being realizes at some point: death is inevitable, and can come for you at any time and in any manner.
Which is not to say that they were unfamiliar with death previously. Roberta’s (Christina Ricci) mother died when she was young(er). Samantha’s (Gaby Hoffman) grandfather is deceased, though we don’t know if he died before she was born. The very fact that the séance that kicks off the summer isn’t their first indicates that these girls have an awareness of and interest in death that goes beyond that of the other 12-year-olds in their town.
What drives their interest in death and the spiritual afterlife? Samantha is a sci-fi and supernatural fan. Teeny (Thora Birch), who wants to contact Marilyn Monroe, is there for entertainment. Chrissy (Ashleigh Aston Moore), seems to mostly be along for the ride. Perhaps Roberta hopes to eventually contact her mother’s spirit, though that’s pure conjecture.
Of course, from the minute she’s introduced (in the flashback narrative), it’s clear that Roberta has a different relationship to death than her friends do. One of the first things mentioned about her is that her mother died, and that Roberta never leaves the house without a wallet-sized photo of her. Later, it’s revealed that Roberta has a habit of faking her death to prank her friends—in the prank shown onscreen, she dives into a lake from a tree branch and fakes her death so convincingly that Chrissy is about to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Adult Samantha shares in her narration that Roberta had jumped off a roof and pretended to break her neck earlier that year: “None of us had experienced a loss like Roberta’s and we didn’t understand her jokes. But she kept trying to make death funny.” The pranks suggest a coping mechanism, but they are also just that: practical jokes about death.
Though the girls do seem to believe in what they’re doing with the séance, they also treat it as a fun game. Chrissy pranks her friends and pretends that “Dear Johnny,” the deceased person they’re trying to reach, is speaking to her, before chiding her friends that “it’s all just pretend.” All the girls can think to ask Dear Johnny is how he died. In part, this question comes out of curiosity and kinship, as they note he was young—their age—when he died in the mid-1940s. But there’s an immaturity on display too, indicating that they are more interested in the potentially gruesome details than any kind of meaningful interaction with his spirit.
The séance is interrupted, but later, they find Dear Johnny’s headstone cracked in pieces and assume that they’ve really done it: they’ve called him to the living world. The game of it all escalates; the girls are determined to find out how Dear Johnny died and put him back to rest. They check the Shelby library; there’s nothing from pre-1948 thanks to a fire. They check a library in a nearby town and find out that Johnny and his mother’s deaths were “unexpected and tragic,” but pages are torn out of the newspaper archive—leading them to believe that “someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to keep Dear Johnny’s death a mystery.”
Their collective curiosity is further piqued. It’s a mystery, one that they now believe has been covered up, that the girls feel charged with solving—even though no one has asked them to do so and multiple adults try to steer them off the path, presumably to protect either the girls themselves, or the town, or Peter Sims (Walter Sparrow) from having to relive that tragedy. The mystery takes them to Wiladene (Janeane Garofolo), the rumored town witch and another source of endless fascination for the girls, who confirms via tarot that Dear Johnny was murdered. The girls playfully speculate that maybe Johnny wants them to get revenge on his killer—still treating this real-life tragedy like a game. Finally, their search takes them to Samantha’s grandma’s attic, where the truth is revealed. Dear Johnny and his mother were shot and killed by a suspected burglar/passer-by, piercing the Shelby residents’ bubble and the imagined safety of their town.
In the moment, the girls do seem to feel the weight of what they’ve been chasing when they discover the truth, echoing the point in Stand by Me when Gordie and his friends realize that seeing a dead body isn’t cool at all—it’s just sad and heavy and tragic. It’s all over their faces, and the heaviness they’re suddenly feeling and dealing with comes to a boiling point in Roberta’s ensuing breakdown.
Over the course of the summer, death becomes more real, even for Roberta. She finds an article about her mother’s car accident and death at the second library the girls check for Dear Johnny records. That article makes her realize that her father’s been lying to her—he’d always told her that her mother died instantly, before she could feel any pain, when in reality she did not. This realization, coupled with the girls’ discovery about Dear Johnny’s death, breaks Roberta in the attic. She sobs and smashes a mirror and rages about adults lying and asks why Dear Johnny, his mother, and her mother all had to die. This is a breakthrough moment, for her and her friends, and it’s also the crux of the plot, as they then make the vow that brings the four women back to Shelby in the present-day. The breakthrough is also nudged along by Samantha’s own recent near-death experience, which only Teeny knows about—her near-drowning in a sewer, prevented by Peter Sims jumping in to save her. That makes three of the four friends for whom death has become an ever-closer reality. Chrissy, the most sheltered one of the group, doesn’t have her own personal connection to death, but her deep bond with Roberta suggests that her friend’s renewed tragedy strikes close to home.
But the girls’ reckoning with death isn’t complete until their next séance, when their attempt to ask Dear Johnny’s spirit if he came back to tell them who killed him is interrupted by a groundskeeper who reveals that he cracked Dear Johnny’s headstone with his tractor. Finally, the game is over. The girls realize they’ve been playing pretend all this time. They could never commune with the dead, and the reward of their Dear Johnny treasure hunt is the knowledge that death is always just a moment away, no matter your age, no matter how safe your town appears to be. The reward is growing up. The summer ends with the girls achieving their dream of buying a shared treehouse; as they decorate it, Adult Samantha says in voiceover that the summer brought the girls independence from each other. They grew up.
At the start of the flashback, Samantha narrates, “Shelby Indiana was not the most exciting place to grow up. In fact, the most common cause of death before puberty…was boredom.” That statement both showcases the bubble these girls live in and foreshadows the events that follow. The girls turn to their séances and ensuing scavenger hunt for entertainment because they’re bored. Dear Johnny, who died before puberty, and not from boredom, is the subject of an exciting mystery for them to solve. This is, of course, a sign of the girls’ privilege and their sheltered surroundings, that death is abstract for them in this way (save for Roberta, though she, too, participates in the gameifying). It’s only once it becomes really real for them—once Roberta confronts the truth of her mother’s death, once Sam nearly dies in the sewer, once they learn the details of Dear Johnny’s murder, once they realize the cracked headstone was a random coincidence—that it stops being a game. Samantha says that she and the other girls didn’t understand Roberta’s attempts to “make death funny,” but actually, they understood it more than they realized. They were all trying to make death entertaining and interesting and fun.
It isn’t just Roberta’s prank(s) or the séances and Dear Johnny mystery; death-as-entertainment is all around these girls. Teeny watches Love Story, a film about young love and terminal illness, on her roof; Samantha and Teeny discuss which friend they’d kill and eat if they were stuck on a desert island during a game of Truth or Dare; that same game leads to a discussion of all the widowed parents represented on television at the time (The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, My Three Sons,Beverly Hillbillies, and Bonanza are all name-checked). Even though it’s all around them, nothing brings the lesson of the harsh reality and closeness of death quite like the personal confrontations the girls have with it. That lesson lurches them forward toward adulthood. The assumed protective safety of their bubble has burst (though, of course, even if not as safe as they’d thought, it still seems relatively sheltered). Death isn’t entertainment to them anymore. Do Teeny and Sam stop joking about which friend they’d eat? Does Roberta stop pulling fake death pranks? We do know that she goes on to become a doctor, someone charged with saving lives. The movie ends with a birth that she helps facilitate, bringing things full circle, in a way.
And these four are still friends in adulthood, fulfilling their attic promise as well as Sam and Teeny’s vow of “best friends for life,” which itself evokes death if said another way: