Following the ritualistic consumption of bird flesh and the accompanying carb loading, Thanksgiving evening typically finds the American family in an L-tryptophan-induced, zombie-like stupor, sprawled out in front of the TV, numbly, dumbly watching whatever happens to be on—a Twilight Zone marathon if you're really lucky, but more likely a goddamned ball game or something else your uncle Earl wants to see. But this year there is an alternative: work off some of those carbs by getting your big, overfed American keister out of the house and trekking over to Rancho Santa Margarita for a rare big-screen showing of Stand By Me.
Stand By Me is far better than it has any right to be. You certainly don't go in expecting a classic of a 1986 movie based on a Stephen King story, directed by Rob Reiner, and starring such young thespians as Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell. But a classic it is; the story of a group of 12-year-old pals who set out to find the body of a missing boy, Stand By Me is a touching but also remarkably clear-eyed look at friendship among the young males of the species, accurately capturing the genuine love that guys can feel for each other as well as the endless, chimp-like hazing that accompanies it.
The passage of time has given the film an additional level of poignancy; it's a bit like flipping through an old yearbook, as we look at these once-promising young actors and know that some of them are destined for big things, while some are destined for hard times, or the grave.
The film stars a very good Wil Wheaton, the frail, perpetually worried-looking teen actor who was seemingly ubiquitous for a time in the '80s. He vanished from sight after he left the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the early '90s, and for years afterward he was famous mostly for not being famous anymore. Recently he reinvented himself as a writer and has become something of an Internet phenomenon with his candid and occasionally hilarious website, wilwheaton.net. His co-star River Phoenix of course grew up to be a major star in the '90s before perishing of an overdose outside the Viper Room, while Corey Feldman eventually became that sad, lost soul who haunts VH1 and whatever other public forums will have him. The real surprise in the bunch is O'Connell, the film's lovable, none-too-bright butterball who would grow up to be the leading man of the bunch, although the transformation of Kiefer Sutherland from baby-faced rockabilly sadist to 24's incorruptible Jack Bauer is almost as unlikely. On his site, Wheaton has written that the actors really were these characters, to the extent that Sutherland even bullied the others off-screen. And you can see that reality in the film: there is nothing false in Wheaton's fretfulness or smarts, in Phoenix's sensitivity and generosity of spirit, in Feldman's volatility or O'Connell's dorky sweetness.
Yes, Thanksgiving is upon us again somehow, and with it the looming horrors of Christmas and New Year's beyond. It's been a rough year for me, it's probably been a rough year for you, and it's certainly been a rough year for the rest of the planet. Honestly, this hardly seems like the best time for giving thanks. But there are a handful of tough-minded but genuinely heartwarming stories—stories like A Christmas Carol, stories like It's a Wonderful Life, stories like this one—that serve to remind us that while life can be damned hard sometimes, if not most of the time, there are those simple joys that make it worth sticking around for the end credits. There is friendship. There is love. There is cherry-flavored Pez. In the midst of death, we are in life. Such stories always risk sentimentality, but when they work—and Stand By Me works better than ever—they can be little lifesavers. See this movie on Thanksgiving, and maybe you'll find something in your life to give thanks for after all.
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STAND BY ME SCREENS AT EDWARDS RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA. THURS., NOV. 24, 9 P.M. $6; ALSO AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE. WED., 9 P.M. $6.