We all need friends. Like Gordie and Chris in Rob Reiner‘s 1986 film classic Stand by Me. Especially now. When the new fears of COVID-19 layer on top of old traumas, worries, and sadness – and can make them prey upon you like the gang of teenage bullies in the film. Won’t leave you alone. Until you find a way to safely feel them. Face them. A friend helps. Especially in a world that seems an unending place of sorrow. When it’s hard to see a way out. Then, it’s good to have a reminder that there is someone, or more than one someone, who stands by you (emotionally, for sure). Because this is a time that most of us have to say, “don’t stand by me”(Listen!) at least, not closer than 6 feet. And, that is lonely.
It’s Castle Rock, Oregon, in the summer of 1959, and four friends, on the edge of middle school, budding into adolescence, are on a mission. Rockin’ Robin, by Bobby Day, is playing in the background as they make their plans. This gang of four is going on a search for a dead body, a dead boy, missing somewhere in the woods, exactly their age.
Each boy, Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) has their own reason for going on this search. Complicated reasons, which unfold on their two-day journey.
Teddy, for recognition (“we’ll be on the front page of the paper!”), as someone other than a boy with a “looney” abusive father he protects; whose love he needs and doesn’t get. Vern, to tell himself he’s one of the boys, and not afraid of everything (yet, he is.)
But, it’s Gordie and Chris’s friendship Stand by Me showcases best, with raw homelife traumas, that their rare love and compassion for each other does partly heal. Both boys live with different forms of childhood grief, painful and scarring; and hard to get free.
Lonely Boys & Parents Who Can’t Care
Their adventure, it’s exciting, but Gordie isn’t enthusiastic. “He’d become an invisible boy at home.” Four months earlier, his brother Denny was killed in a jeep accident. His mother doesn’t hear him. Numbed, staring into the space that Denny left. His dad, who never appreciated him anyway (Denny, was everything) is angry at Gordie all the time.
And, Gordie hasn’t cried yet. He can’t. He loved Denny. The only one who saw him or cared. He just can’t let himself feel how lonely it is without him. He’s got his friends, but it’s not the same. Plus, his dad criticizes them too: “Why can’t you have friends like Denny?” Thinks Chris is a bad boy. But, Gordie sees Chris for the sensitive boy he is.
Sometimes Chris has to hide his sensitivity just like Gordie hides his grief. Not thinking anyone would get it. Or that the bullies would call him weak, which they would and do. That’s where friendship is a welcome respite; a friend that truly understands, that is.
Chris knows loneliness as well as Gordie. Even though they’re different boys from different backgrounds, neither have parents that care. Chris’s older brother is his arch-enemy and bully. Gordie’s brother is gone. Neither boy believes he’s any good at all.
Not a good place to live. Those kinds of feelings can take you down.
So, why do these four (rather endearing, right?) friends need to see a dead body? Well, there are the reasons already mentioned, but there’s another. Especially when it comes to Gordie and Chris. They need to awaken feelings they try to keep dead. They know it, in some ways. And, if they don’t face their grief, they’ll continue to suffer is effects.
Bullies Everywhere & In Your Head
Bullies are real. They exist in your family. In your neighborhood. Chris’s brother and his gang. Gordie’s dad. And, even in your own head. In most ways, that’s the worst. We see it in both Gordie and Chris. Gordie, a kid whose dad and mom doted on Denny and his football. Didn’t care to know about Gordie’s stories and writing talent. No, not at all.
Denny did. But Denny’s gone. Chris takes Denny’s place. Encourages Gordie’s storytelling at the campfire. But, when you think you don’t deserve to live, it’s hard to take it in. That’s Gordie’s nightmare: that he should’ve been the one to die. In his dream, that’s what his dad yells. Gordie knows: his dad loved Denny and not him. How do you live with that? It turns into a voice in your head that won’t leave you alone.
Yes, there are bullies everywhere in Stand by Me. In the junkyard. That dog after you. In your head. Bullies to be conquered. Sure, you can take a gun along. Chris’s father’s 45. That helps when there’s a knife pointed at you. A gun gives you power when you’re not supposed to be scared. To fight against the feeling that there’s no way of getting out.
But the truth is: there’s more power in a friend. Someone that will stand by you. Be there for all your feelings, and your grief. Help you stand up to that bully in your head.
Yes, Gordie and Chris do that for each other. They see what the other can’t see.
Standing Up to The Bully
They’re fast friends. When Chris says they won’t be together in middle school, Gordie will be taking college classes and he won’t, Gordie objects. But Chris is insistent: “Your friends would bring you down. You could be a real writer.” “I don’t want to be a writer, it’s stupid.” “That’s your dad talking.” Those demeaning voices get in your head.
“I know how your dad feels about you,” Chris says. “He doesn’t give a shit. Denny was the one he cared about. You’re just a kid, Gordie.” “Thanks, Dad.” “I wish to hell I was your dad. God gave you something. Those stories. And, if your parents are too fucked up to look out for you, then maybe I should.” Now, that’s a real friend.
Chris sees the bully in Gordie’s head; his dad. But, not so much the one in his own. Problem is: Chris believes it, is quite sure his bully is right. All the teachers; his drunk dad; his delinquent brother; the past that follows him with a voice that says he’s not smart. Not smart enough to find a way out. That he is his family. And: everyone knows.
Gordie doesn’t think so at all. He’s the kind of friend to Chris that Chris is to him. And, later, Gordie helps save Chris from Ace’s knife; backing him up with the 45. Gordie’d shoot Ace if he had to, to save his friend. Both Chris and Gordie need each other’s help, more than anything. Or life would be so much harder. And, so much sadder.
Buddy Holly sings: “A love like yours will surely come my way.” Yes, that’s a friend.
A Friend’s Love Helps
The worst thing is to be alone. In what seems a prison cell of isolation. Sadness closes in. You can try to run from it, just like it’s that oncoming train, faster and faster after you, and you can’t get off its track. Not easily, that is. There’s always something to remind you.
That’s what happens to Gordie. He keeps flashing back to memories of life with Denny before Denny was suddenly gone. The journey to find the dead body is the journey to waking up, out of his numbness. But, first, he trudges along, with his head hung down. As dead as that dead kid, Ray Brower. Heavy with shame he can’t easily shrug off.
Because those bullies that steal his brother’s hat? They’re inside his mind making him feel as small as his dad does. This journey is to give him the courage to stand up to them. To know that he has a friend to back him up, and that’s it’s really ok to cry.
And, that night, out in the woods, while they try to find the dead body of Ray Brower before anyone else does (like that teenage gang of bullies), they hear howling. And take turns standing watch with the gun. Thinking that howling is Ray’s ghost. But is it, really?
No. What’s out there, howling, are the ghosts of grief. Old grief (having no dad), new grief (the loss of a brother;) old grief (those voices in your head that you have to live with every day.) What do you do with all that grief? You can’t fight it off with a gun.
What Do You Do with Grief?
A friend is better than a gun. Because we all need someone to know what we feel. Grief eats away at you if you hold it inside. With no one to hear. No one who asks how you are? Says, let’s talk. So, you bury it, as Gordie does. You have to go numb because the feelings are too much when you don’t (or didn’t) have a mom or a dad to help.
Probably they’re numb too, or drunk or angry. Sometimes, then, it’s hard even to know what you feel. But, just maybe, there’s someone who sees and knows before you do. And, offers you a hand. That’s the way it is, with Gordie and Chris. That’s what a friend is for. Friendship matters. Otherwise, you’re lost. And, your feelings stay shut down.
The leader of the teenage gang, Ace (Kiefer Sutherland) is like that in spades. He drag-races his other friends; going to pass in the wrong lane, and won’t move out of the way for a log-filled truck. Runs it right off the road. Does he care? No. He has no feelings. Only, “I won!” It’s all about defeating vulnerability. But, seriously, that’s no prize.
Gordie and Chris feel, on that night of the ghosts, howling. The night when Gordie has the nightmare. Of his brother’s funeral, his dad, putting a hand on his shoulder, but not the comforting hand he needs. Saying: “It should’ve been you, Gordon.” Moaning, thrashing in his sleep, Chris comes to sit beside him. And, wakes him out of his dream.
“I didn’t cry at Denny’s funeral. And, I miss him, Chris.” Chris, the Stand By Me friend, says: “I know.” Gordie turns to Chris (he just can’t lose anyone else he needs): “Maybe you can take college courses with me. You’re smart enough.” “They won’t let me,” Chris responds. “Why not?” Gordie has no idea what he means.
A Stand By Me Friend to Cry With
No one sees Chris. He has to be tough. Covering up the sensitive boy he’s afraid to be. Gordie sees what his friend is capable of when no one else does, not even Chris himself.
“What they think of me and my family. I’m just one of Roy Chambers’s kids.” “Not true.” “Oh, it is.” Chris cries. “Eyeball Chambers, brother?” Chris sobs. “I wish I could go somewhere no one knows me. I guess I’m a pussy.” “No,” Gordie tells him, patting him on the arm. Right there beside him, while Chris continues to sob. It’s not weak to cry.
When Gordie finally sees Ray Brower’s body, it’s a shock: “The kid wasn’t sick, sleeping; the kid was dead … at the time, I didn’t know why I had to see that body so badly.” Now he does: “Why did you have to die? Why did Denny have to die, Chris? It should’ve been me. I’m no good, my dad said it, I’m no good. My dad hates me.”
He sobs, just like Chris sobbed. And, now, Chris is there, holding him. A rare friend; a young kid that gets it. Knows Gordie’s sad loneliness as his own. They both reach out, and reach in; listen, care; and see the truth. “No, he doesn’t hate you. He just doesn’t know you.” Yet, they do. They know each other well.
A friend matters. A friend that really sees you – well, there’s nothing better. And, it might just mean your future. Because a friend is what you need to stand up to the bully that says: “I’m never going to get out of this town, am I, Gordie?” “You can do anything you want, man.” “Give me some skin.” And, Chris did get out. Alive. At least for a while.
Reaching Out (Friendship & COVID-19)
Chris was Chris. He cared. Stood up for people, even strangers. And, Stand by Me is Chris’s story. As Gordie writes it, remembering Chris. After reading in the paper that: Attorney, Chris Chambers died in a fast-food restaurant, when he stepped in and tried to stop another knife fight, and was stabbed in the throat. Yes. Chris became a lawyer.
Gordie became the writer that Chris told him he would be. They both got away. From those bullies in their heads; of fathers and not being “good enough.” And, though they hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, Gordie says, as Stand by Me ends: “I know I’ll miss him forever. I never had any friends later like I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
Well, I don’t know about that. But, Chris and Gordie were special friends. Unusual kids. Because they had empathy. Didn’t let each other go numb. They knew loneliness. And, because they cared, were able to reach each other’s tears, and make them ok. Crying helps, as much as a friend, especially if that friend has his arm around you.
Oh, I know, social distancing and all. No hugging with COVID-19. But virtual hugs, a voice on the phone, that’s really good too. In fact, it makes all the difference. Because it says: I hear your loneliness. How are you? Let’s talk. Cry if you need to, I’m here. It’s a reminder that someone is there to stand by you. That loneliness and fear will end.
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