You know the uncanny valley? That’s the term used to describe the drop-off in a person’s ability to feel empathy for something the closer it looks and acts to a human; between talking appliance or living furniture and fully-fledged human there’s a gulf that covers things like zombies and terrible animatronics. There should be a similar term to describe child characters, because they are either one of two things: perfectly believable children or weird little mutants acting far off from how their age says they should act, either precocious mini-adults or cloying infantile leftovers from greeting cards. It’s a hard task to find a good child actor to play a part in your movie. It’s even harder to have multiple child actors interact with each other and still seem realistic. So just consider for a moment how impressive Stand By Me is for having its central cast of four kids carry almost every single scene in the film. It deserves praise for that alone.
Geordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) hike into the woods to find the body of a missing kid in their typical Stephen King 1950s town, discovered by Vern’s brother while engaging in some less-than-legal activities. Their rite of passage story is pretty clear from the outset, but it’s the presentation that really sets it apart. These aren’t sanitised children you’re seeing, not the kind of children that adults pretend they are: they smoke, they swear, they constantly insult each others’ mothers, they get up to all sorts of life-threatening hooliganism, not because they’re bad kids but that’s just because how kids are when they’re straining to break free of the constraints and watchful eyes of their parents. The frank depiction of adolesence extends to the problems they all have in their lives and the ways they deal with them (or don’t) along their journey. Most things are just laughed off or just seen as the way things are – because how are you going to make changes to your life when you’re twelve, really? – but there’s occasional moments of deep contemplation, unfiltered tenderness, and the kind of boundless friendship you can only feel as a child. No other film comes close to portraying so perfectly this window of life, the time when you first take steps into the real world with some degree of freedom and begin to grasp just how vast is truly is.