35 Years Later, “Stand by Me” Is Still Oregon’s Ultimate Movie
Thirty-five years ago this week Support me open in large clearance. Fifty-one years ago today, River Phoenix was born. It is difficult to disentangle their legacies.
Rob Reiner’s gloriously nostalgic 1986 masterpiece about a group of friends in search of a corpse is home to the second (and perhaps the best) performance by a 15-year-old Phoenix. Of its openings, Support me is haunted by the death of his character, Chris Chambers; Phoenix’s untimely demise seven years later gave her a retroactive air of chilling clairvoyance. Each of the film’s young stars — Phoenix, Will Wheaton, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell — give captivating turns as genuinely damaged prepubescent lounging in the simple ease of friendship. But really, this is the Phoenix movie.
Phoenix and Support me were forged here in Oregon and grew to transcend their fairly humble origins. Phoenix was born to hippie parents in Madras before becoming the dominant archetype of male sensibility and then a martyr. Although it takes place in the small town of Castle Rock in Washington (transposed from the Maine setting of the Stephen King short story on which it is based), Support me was primarily shot in and around Brownsville, Oregon, which has dined on the Connection since the film cost seven times its box office budget and became one of the ’80s longest lasting hits.
To this day, it is probably the Beaver State’s quintessential movie, more precisely of a place that Kindergarten policeman and more populist and readable than anything by PNW filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt or Gus Van Sant. Obviously, my Irish editor in my 40s and I, a native of Oregon in my 20s, share the same passion for this. “It’s such a white men movie and I’m going to lie down in traffic anyway for that, because it goes way beyond that,” she wrote to me. I bought it on DVD from Fred Meyer when I was about 10 years old and memorized it in a few weeks; I’ve probably seen it more than anything else I’ve ever done.
A key for Support meThe universal appeal of is the way it weaves a frame story about an adult Gordie La Chance (Richard Dreyfus as an adult, Will Wheaton as a child) remembering the main events of the film in his gripping story of discovering unsupervised self. It’s sort of a Rorschach test: the kids see themselves (or want to) in the movie’s adventure story, and the adults see themselves in the sad adult Gordie remembering the story of adventure. There is a real balance in the way Reiner keeps both perspectives in her head at all times, never completely giving up on one to give credit to the other.
The other key to his endurance is his unusual and breathtaking empathy. It is a film that evokes the deep feelings of a 12 year old by feeling his 12 year old children deeply on screen. Tonally, he’s very serious, not a bad bone in his body, as he knows time alone is bad enough to end lives and dissolve precious friendships.
Gordie is a victim of the grief his parents feel for his late older brother (played by a baby-faced John Cusack in a flashback); Teddy (Feldman) is abused by his unstable veteran father; Vern (O’Connell) is overweight, easy-going, and has a hell of a brother; and Chris from Phoenix, as Dreyfus memorably puts it in a voiceover, “came from a bad family, and everyone knew he was going to get bad. Even Chris.”
The movie lets each boy’s pain breathe, and then we watch them alleviate it with cigarettes and talks about Goofy and Pluto and odes to Cherry Pez. The central relationship, between Gordie and Chris, is one of the great cinematic presentations of Platonic love. They are more closely related than Teddy and Vern, as all groups of friends have implicit levels, and when each boy falls apart – Chris about his inability to escape his family’s reputation, Gordie about his permanent relegation in the shadow of his brother – the other ensures the flotation. The way Phoenix holds Wheaton while he sobs shortly after the film’s climax pretty much cemented his status as an icon of supernatural sensitivity there.
The film’s most famous line is, in many ways, also its mission statement: “I never had friends later like the ones I had when I was 12.” There is its empathy, crystallized, plus a distillation of the multitudes that spring from its deceptive simplicity. Support me is about a puzzled adult seeking the purity of childhood, and it’s about puzzled boys brandishing their youth as a shield against the unbearable darkness of growing up. It’s about the dizziness and also the banality of loss, all personified in the last endless summer before your world begins to atomize.
This is something I watched in the Oregon wilderness with my friends when I was 12, because he felt like he was talking both directly to us and directly above us, harboring something like wisdom between his cock jokes and his songs that we couldn’t not quite glean.
I cannot say that I have had a film that has gripped me the same way since. Jesus, can anyone?