Though it pines for 1950s of summers past, Rob Reiner’s 1986 coming-of-age drama, based on Stephen King’s novella The Body, is a celebration of stories and storytellers as much as an exercise in nostalgia.
Narrated in hindsight by writer Gordie LaChance (Richard Dreyfuss), it tells of a childhood trip along the train tracks of Maine to find the corpse of Ray Brower, an odyssey bolstered by small-town fictions and fantasies.
Like Gordie (Wil Wheaton), who we first see leafing through detective magazines, King dramatises elements of his autobiography – the bridge, leech and milk money scenes actually happened.
Though an encounter with local mutt Chopper teaches Gordie “the difference between myth and reality”, it’s the fluidity between the two that makes the film so poignant. Despite the erosions of time and tragedy, the grown-up Gordie has managed to hold onto his inner child – as has King.
Faithfully adapted by Academy Award nominees Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, endlessly quotable and charmingly played, particularly by River Phoenix as troubled peacemaker Chris Chambers and Jerry O’Connell as goofball Vern Tessio, it’s not just King’s youth up there on the screen.
On an audio commentary that fades in and out, Reiner describes peppering the film with his songs and ‘Your Momma’ jokes, and casting close to his stars’ personalities.
“There was no other kid with as much pain and turbulence in his life as I had,” recalls Corey Feldman (excellent as the pained Teddy DuChamp) in the moving Making Of. As in all King’s work, here be monsters.
Brower was hit by a train while picking blueberries and, whether shouldering family bereavements or dispensing casual cruelties, the gravity of the boys’ childhood ills is never underestimated. “It’s about the first time you had to face something frightening by yourself,” says King.
Both King and Reiner cast shadows over other extras. One minute we’re watching Phoenix, taken by an overdose in 1993, dancing in a music video, the next he’s being eulogised by Wheaton and Feldman in a mesmerising exclusive to Blu video commentary chaired by Reiner.
The film’s climax shows the young actor disappearing into Gordie’s past – a reminder of the fact that, no matter how beautifully told, some stories don’t have happy endings.
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