Stand By Me is the story of four twelve year olds living in a small town in the year 1959, whose lives were changed by a chance adventure that they embarked on at the end of an indolent summer. The four boys were Gordie Lachance, Chris Chambers Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio. The boys had their own tree house with its special club rules, including a secret knock, and spent their time in meaningless arguments, playing games, or just hanging out. Although on the surface they are typical pre-adolescent boys, you soon find out that underneath their normal bravado and enthusiasm, each of them have problems at home to deal with. Gordie’s older brother Denny was recently killed in an auto accident, and his parents have not handled it well. They mope around their house and continually ask Gordie (who is an aspiring writer) why he isn’t more like his brother, who was a popular athlete in town. Gordie’s best friend, Chris, who is intelligent, brave, and the natural leader of the group, has an alcoholic father, who constantly beats him, and an older brother who is a delinquent.
Everyone in town figures that Chris will follow in their footsteps, so he is very much afraid of what his future will be. Teddy is the son of an emotionally disturbed war veteran who has abused him all his life. In his mind Teddy cannot accept his situation, so he has created a fantasy world in which his father is an All American war hero instead of an inmate in a mental hospital. Vern is on the chubby side, somewhat uncoordinated, and is constantly the butt of jokes. Vern’s older brother likes to push him around when he is there, and so Vern spends a fair amount of time hiding out. Yet Vern ends up being the catalyst of the story. He accidentally overhears his older brother describe the location where he is pretty sure that the dead body of a missing boy from the town that everyone had been looking for actually lies. This gives him a chance to be important in the pecking order of the club, and he brings this information to the other boys.
Intrigued by the thought of seeing a real dead body and excited at the prospect of becoming heroes in the town for finding it, the boys decide to walk the twenty miles, which will take them two days to complete. They each tell their parents that they are spending the night at their friend’s house, but given their home situations, it’s not really a problem for them to take off. The journey starts off well enough, peppered with the bickering chatter typical of twelve year olds, but soon they realize how unprepared they are. No one remembered to bring along any food and they have very little money.
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This leads to their first adventure along the way as Gordie is elected to buy food at a store, but must sneak through the junkyard to do so. They end up being discovered by the junkyard owner who sics his dog on them for trespassing on his property. Later they out-run a train on a bridge, tell stories by the campfire, and have a traumatic experience with leeches when they take a shortcut through a swamp. Meanwhile, Ace Merrill leader of an older gang of town kids finds out about the location of the body from Vern’s older brother and decides to go find the body also, for basically the same reasons. The story comes to its climax point as the two groups square off at the site of the dead body.
While Stand By Me seems to be another “coming of age” film, its meaning and interest really exists on two levels. The entire story is told in a series of flashbacks, narrated by the adult Gordie who is now a successful writer, and is lamenting a news clipping about the death of his childhood buddy Chris, who had succeeded in overcoming his self doubts and dysfunctional family situation to become a lawyer. Chris was killed because of the way he had lived, bravely intervening during an altercation in a restaurant, and suffering a knife wound for his efforts. You enter the mind of the writer throughout this film, in the way that the story is told, how the flashbacks move around in time when necessary, and especially in the hilarious “story within a story” told by Gordie at the campfire about “Lardass” Hogan and the pie eating contest. While the boys characters are quite believable, well acted, and superbly cast, the cathartic revelations of the boys’ innermost feelings, fears, and self-doubts almost “on cue” show the sure hand of writer Stephen King more than a sense of total reality.