This review was originally written for French Toast Sunday.
Some films have a cult status. They were released and seen by a generation at just the right time to acquire an immovable lodging within their heart, and nothing you can say about them will ever shift that position. The Goonies is such a film, but not for me. My personal right-age-right-time film is The Breakfast Club (more for when I saw it than when it came out, as I hadn’t been born yet). For many people, Stand By Me is such an untouchable classic. I don’t mean to dissuade them from this mindset, in the same way that I’d rather people didn’t rain on my Breakfast Club parade, but unfortunately I wasn’t overly sold on Stand By Me. Set in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Oregon (moved from Maine, where most of Stephen King’s works are set), it tells the tale of four young boys – all aged about 12 or 13 – who one day hear about a dead body 20 miles away along the train tracks, and decide to go find it. They’re kids, what else are they gonna do when they hear about a dead body? None of the boys have particularly ideal home lives or upbringings – you could say all they have is each other – and this film isn’t so much about the adventure they go on, but about how the relationships they have with one another in their youth were never lived up to by any they had when they were older.The four protagonists are Gordie (Wil Wheaton), a shy, aspiring writer who lives in his football-hero older brother’s shadow, even after he was killed; Chris (River Phoenix), the leader of the group who is often disregarded by others because of his criminal family, despite him actually being a relatively good kid; Teddy (Corey Feldman), whose abusive and possibly crazy father has left him with a burned ear and a defensiveness bordering on obsession; and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), an overweight kid who is often picked on, even by the others, but never in a nasty way. The bond between these four is wonderful and extremely well-realised, with many moments of compassion and understanding interspersed between the ridiculing, sing-a-longs and general teasing. The random juvenile conversations – could Mighty Mouse beat up Superman, whether cherry flavor Pez would be capable of sustaining life – were also great, and reminiscent of the kinds of asinine debates had in youth, that are now resigned to post-pub drunken discussions.Acting-wise, three out of four of the leads are great. Phoenix and Feldman had both had numerous acting roles before, so each were more than capable to handle their scenes. Phoenix was particularly impressive, but only because he had more emotional heavy-lifting, whereas Feldman had a better character to play. O’Connell, in his first acting role, is more than passable, and he shows a complete contrast here to the more lady-killing, arrogant roles he’d become better known for in the likes of Piranha 3D, Scream 2 and Jerry Maguire. The weak point though is unfortunately the primary protagonist, Wil Wheaton. His Gordie Lachance comes off as whiny and pathetic, and his acting pales in comparison to the other three. It doesn’t help that most of his scenes are shared with the far superior Phoenix, and that Wheaton’s character is supposed to be lost and unsure of who he wants to be – which admittedly is conveyed well – but that becomes a flaw when this is someone you’re supposed to follow throughout the film.
The standout set pieces I’d heard a great deal about before watching watching were a scene involving a pie-eating contest, and another featuring an oncoming train on a bridge. Both lived up to some level of expectation – the pie scene is hilarious – but the train sequence’s inevitable conclusion removed any tension for me, as did my heightened annoyance at the pathetic character of Vern and his actions throughout it. The leech scene was also disappointing, although to be honest this could be because I was expecting it to occur, so there was no surprise to be had. That, and it lacked any real threat or danger, especially after it was dealt with so rapidly and with no ill effect.I think my main issue with this story could be jealousy. The childhood these boys have is something I’ve at least partly longed for – adventures to unknown places, excitement derived through danger, rebelling against… well, anything, really. These are all things I’ve never really encountered anywhere outside of movies (hence why I retreat back to them so often). I’m a fairly petty and very envious person, so me watching these kids (who I now realise I’m more than double the age of) having the time of their life fills me with nothing but regret at how it’s something I’ll never experience any way other than vicariously. Sorry, got a little off track there, but I think that helps to explain why I didn’t gel with the film as much as other people seem to.I was very appreciative of the inclusion of Keifer Sutherland’s Ace, a local bully a few years older than the gang who has his own reasons for finding the dead body, who also never misses an opportunity to humiliate the guys. His role – showing the kind of person that at least Chris and probably Teddy are expected to become – provides an actual plot and sense of drive to an otherwise laconic picture, and were he missing I’d have been less engaged, and the film would have scraped in at a little over an hour long. John Cusack was also a welcome surprise as the memory of Gordie’s brother, although unfortunately he isn’t in the film enough to register much of an impact.So all in all, if you’re of a similar age to the kids in the film, or you had a childhood of a comparatively enjoyable level to that on screen, then this could be the film for you. However chances are you’ve already seen it, probably numerous times (it is apparently unbelievable that this was my first viewing) and may well have stopped reading this after I announced my initial disinterest.
Choose Life 6/10