'Stand by Me': Stephen King Celebrates Labor Day

Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman in ‘Stand by Me’/Image © 1986 Sony Pictures
Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman in ‘Stand by Me’/Image © 1986 Sony Pictures

Let’s put this out there: not only is “Stand by Me” one of the great movies about growing up, but it’s also the best Labor Day film ever. Granted, there’s no real competition — though Hollywood will probably make one of those ensemble rom-coms about Labor Day eventually — but this one would be hard to top in any case.

Based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, collected in 1982’s Different Seasons with the stories that became “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Apt Pupil,” “Stand by Me” is the story of four twelve-year-old boys who go in search of a dead body over Labor Day weekend in 1959. Adapted by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, who were Oscar-nominated for their work, the film was directed by Rob Reiner and starred Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell as the boys, with Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack, and Richard Dreyfuss in smaller but pivotal roles.

Narrated by one of the boys — now a writer — as an adult (Dreyfus) in the present (that is, 1986), the story is his instinctive response to the tragic death of his longtime friend Chris. On one hand, it’s a coming-of-age story, set in that limbo between childhood and adolescence, a kind of perpetual summer. With the corpse as a MacGuffin, the two-day quest lets them confront their very mature anxieties: the sensitive Gordie (Wheaton), mourning his beloved brother (Cusack); the misunderstood Chris (Phoenix), stigmatized by his delinquent family; the abused, angry Teddy (Feldman); and the overweight, nervous Vern (O’Connell). While framed cheerfully by their youthful interests and values (television, schoolyard chants, pinky swears), each beat of their adventure — from illicit smoking to a gun pulled over the body — guides them quietly, but surely, toward adulthood. The adult Gordie reflects that the experience expanded his perspective, while contracting his hometown of Castle Rock from “the whole world” to “different, smaller,” a stifling perception that will eventually prompt him and Chris to escape.

What elevates this film beyond just another rite-of-passage narrative is the friendship of the boys. There’s genuine chemistry between the four actors, particularly Phoenix and Wheaton, and their exchanges — for example, that hilarious campfire montage — feel realistic without losing their appeal. “Stand by Me” is about relationships: between fathers and sons, between brothers, and, most importantly, between friends. The story the adult Gordie writes and tells in the present day is nostalgic for that innocent era and his childhood gang, but, ultimately, serves as a poignant, loving elegy for his best friend Chris. As he says at the end, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Stephen King has said that “Stand by Me” is one of best adaptations of his work and we would agree with that. The stars aligned just right for this production: a young director, a perfect cast (and who would’ve guessed Wheaton would grow up to be a geek icon and O’Connell an underwear model?), a moving screenplay, a faultless soundtrack. So, if you’re looking for a film to mark the end of summer, break out the cherry Pez (“If I could only have one food to eat for the rest of my life? That’s easy: Pez, cherry flavor Pez”) and the blueberry pie (tri-county pie-eat optional) and sit down with “Stand by Me” this Labor Day weekend.