Rob Reiner directs this adaptation of a Stephen King novella called “The Body.” Everybody seems to love this movie, and with good reason: it’s a touching story about four 12-year-old boys in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Oregon, in 1959. They’re at that lovely age of boyhood where girls haven’t entered the consciousness (not fully anyway), and they’re more interested in having adventures with each other than anything else in the world. These four, played by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, are particularly lucky children because their parents basically ignore them, thus freeing them to embark on a 20-mile hike along a railroad track, searching for the body of a missing boy. (They’re of course very unlucky in that they’re not particularly loved, but the movie uses this to its advantage to manipulate us constantly.)
It’s frustrating to feel such love for this movie, yet be nagged by the gnawing suspicion that it’s a total manipulation. Perhaps if we did not learn that one of the characters later dies tragically as an adult, the movie’s evocative depictions of childhood nostalgia and innocence wouldn’t feel so calculated. But make no bones about it: this movie is calculated. It’s just so well-done that it’s hard not to be emotionally affected. Stand By Me is genuinely enjoyable entertainment, and yet it’s somehow wickedly aware of what it’s doing to the audience.
What feels authentic are the performances, especially of River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton. Phoenix is a natural actor, channeling such powerful emotions at such a young age, and his tragic early death at the age of 23 made him a contemporary James Dean figure, enshrined in cult status. Oh that he could still be with us today, even if it meant the descent into mediocrity that befell all three of his co-stars.