Stand by Me

Stand by Me ★★★★★

This might be an actual perfect movie. It's hard to talk about this film without simply repeating what has already been said; it's not that I can't think of anything original, it's that so many seem to have experienced a similar emotional response to watching this that describing my own feels redundant. So instead I'm gonna talk about the ending. Spoilers from here on.

The final moments are a really clever, really heartbreaking bait-and-switch, with all the pieces of the story and its formal elements lining up to perform it. The movie just spent the better part of 90 minutes telling us the story of four boys on a childhood adventure. We have every reason to expect the ending will involve a 'last days of summer' kind of goodbye, and we know that comes with a very particular kind of mid-grade sadness with which so many of us are deeply familiar. But after Vern and Teddy go home, it becomes something else; it's not a goodbye to summer, it's a goodbye to Chris... and then it's *really* goodbye to Chris. The ground shifts beneath us, we struggle to catch up, and by the time we do, it's over. We were being told a different story all along, we just didn't realize until it was too late.

Chris walks away, and he dissolves. We're already watching his character exit, we're fully prepared to watch him leave the screen - but not like that. He is disappeared from view before he has the chance to exit at his own pace, just like the story does, and just like Chris does: he doesn't walk out of frame, he's erased from it. All of a sudden it's twice as fast, and twice as permanent. And then there's the narration, some of the best I've ever seen, not because of what it says but because of what it does. Richard Dreyfuss starts narrating the ending of the story exactly how we expect him to, and then, even while his tone doesn't change, suddenly he's leaping over 10 years at the same pace he was previously jumping 10 minutes. The story accelerates away from us with no warning or shift until it's too late - and then his voiceover disappears before he has a chance to finish it, giving way to just blinking text on a screen to complete it.

Which brings us to the editing. We watch Chris walk away, we watch him dissolve, and then we are yanked from the past, from childhood and memory, and thrust into the inescapable NOW. The editing launches us forward several decades - 30 years vanish beneath us in the span of a single cut. We didn't know what was in front of us until it was practically behind us. Death sometimes feels like that, a sudden alienation and distance from your memories. News of a passing you weren't there to witness delivered unceremoniously and out of the blue, and the abrupt realization that you weren't aware what kind of goodbye you were saying when you were saying it.

I feel like I could write several essays and analyses about almost every part of this film, from the midnight campfire story that ends triumphantly - but then what? - to the deer sighting he keeps to himself, to the approach to childhood innocence not as blissful ignorance but as carefree youthfulness. It's a poetic film, a film that isn't just sentimental but about that very sentimentality. I can't believe I'm seeing this for the first time now, but I'm so thankful that I did.

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