A few weeks ago Ben and I went to the local cinema with some friends to see Stand By Me. It was the first time in more than 25 years I had seen it on the big screen, although I do not exaggerate to say that I have seen it at least 40 times since it came out in 1986.
The film still holds up. The performances of the four young leads are terrific – both laugh-out-loud funny and teary-eyed poignant. And the story is simple and elegant.
It is no wonder that this was a film that resonated deeply with me and my fellow generation X-ers. Even though it was set in the 1950s, it was a nostalgic homage to an era that was coming to a close.
I grew up with parents who encouraged me – no, required me – to ‘go outside and play’. And I did. My best friends when I was in single digits were usually boys. When I was in first grade my besties were Greg and Rodney. After hours of playing on abandoned farm equipment, or making mud pies, or building cubbies in the bushland behind our houses, their respective mothers would clean me up and send me home in their son’s clothes with a note pinned to my chest, “Sandra got too dirty to send home. I will wash her clothes and bring them over tomorrow.”
When I moved into double digits, I could be found making miniature houses out of moss, gravel and sticks. The tiny families never moved in, because the fun for me was in the building, but I was always filthy by the end of a long day ‘playing outside’. I would sometimes come inside with sand in my pockets. There was a time when I loved my namesake.
At 11, my family lived next to an abandoned rodeo. Talk about the coolest clubhouse ever! My friends and I commandeered the announcers tower, which could only be accessed by a very dodgy ladder. When we got bored with the rodeo, we would play exhausting, involved game of cops and robbers. There were a dozen of us, and we would play – gun-sticks in hand – for hours, ducking between trailers and forming alliances. We were the cliched neighborhood kids; we only came in for dinner when our mothers shouted that it was dark and to get inside. Now!
As recently as three years ago I taught 11 year-olds. Most of them had cell phones and some sort of fashion sense. I can’t imagine that many of them played cops and robbers with their friends until after dark.
Back to 1986.
1986 was a big year for me. I turned 17 and was given a car for my birthday, and I graduated from high school. I saw Top Gun for the first time in a cinema filled with crew from the U.S.S. Enterprise, which was docked in Fremantle harbor. My girlfriends and I swooned over Tom Cruise while the sailors around us roared with laughter at the wanky way Tom and Val strutted about the deck of the Enterprise. It was an interesting lesson in truth versus reality.
And I saw Stand By Me.
I immediately fell in love with River Phoenix. Okay, I know I was 17 and he was a boy of 14 when he made the film, but I could already see the young man he would become in his subtle, skilled performance. And, as a side note, he did grow into that sexy teenaged smile. What a beautiful young man – and, so talented!
In October of ’93, my dad came into my study and announced his death, “That Phoenix River guy you like died.” I actually cried out, and pushed past my dad to the living room, where the television showed grainy images of the street outside Hollywood’s Viper Room. He had died before I had a chance to meet him. It sucked.
I watched Stand By Me again just after his death, and in the scene where Chris says, “Not if I see you first,” and walks into the sunset, fading away to nothing, I choked out a sob. Chris Chambers had died, and so had the boy who had brought him to life.
But again, I digress.
The film resonated with the seventeen-year-old me on a very deep level. I loved my ‘go outside and play’ adventures from my childhood. In fact, even though my friends and I were getting our driver’s licenses and our first – horridly cheap and run down – cars, once in a while we still got on our bikes and rode for miles, spending whole Saturdays having adventures in neighboring suburbs. And there was the ubiquitous bushland near home, where we would still wander on occasion, jumping the creek and walking along fallen trees, talking about all the things that were important to us at the time.
Is it a little weird that even in our late teens we did this stuff? Maybe…we were older than the boys depicted in the film, but the film’s themes rang true for us.
Stand By Me is about friendship, and adventure, and fear and laughter, and growing up. I cannot see it without remembering the friends who experienced the end of that era with me – Stace, Tara, Kerry, Jode, Tonia, Danielle…
Thanks, girls. It was fun.