Before Joaquin There Was River: A Review of Stand by Me



At this year’s Academy Awards Ceremony, Joaquin Phoenix won his first Oscar, sweeping the best actor category during the entire award season.  Winning the coveted golden statue means that among his peers, he is respected and acknowledged for his talent.  But Joaquin knows, as do avid movie goers, that before Joaquin there was River.  River Phoenix his older brother captured America’s hearts in the 1986 film Stand by Me.

Stand by Me, based on Stephen King’s novella, The Body, propelled River Phoenix into stardom while at the same time introducing 3 other up and coming young actors.  Stand by Me is a “Coming of Age” piece about a group of adolescent boys who embark on a quest to find the dead body of a boy that has gone missing.  The story is told in narrative flashback by the main character, Gordy Lachance, portrayed as an adult by Richard Dreyfus.  Lachance has grown up to be a successful writer.  His memories are triggered by the news of the tragic death of his childhood best friend. 

During the flashback, we are transported to 1959 rural Oregon and meet Gordy Lachance an awkward, nondescript boy neglected by his parents, who are still grieving over the death of his older brother.  Gordy who is emotionally scarred seems invisible to his parents and feels unloved.  In addition to 12-year-old Gordy, portrayed by Will Wheaton, there are 3 other lead characters. 

Vern Tessio, played by Jerry O’Connell, is funny, outgoing and mischievous.  When he overhears his older brother and a friend talking about finding the body of the missing boy from the next town, miles away from his home he invites his friends on an adventure to see the dead body.  Teddy Duchamp, portrayed by child actor Corey Feldman, is a little crazy and jumps at the chance of becoming a local hero and getting his name in the newspaper. 

And then there is Chris Chambers, the cool-headed, and brave older adolescent the other boys respect and follow, portrayed by River Phoenix.  River, like the character he plays, is handsome, charismatic, and courageous; thus commanding the big screen in this film.  As the story unfolds, we learn that he views himself as a social outcast.  He is not only embarrassed by his family’s notoriety, as low life thugs and thieves, but is also tormented by his own actions and reputation. 

During the journey, Chris admits to his best friend, Gordy, that he did steal the school’s lunch money, was remorseful and tried to set things right by returning the money he had taken, but was betrayed by the teacher he trusted. We see the depths of River’s innate talents during the campfire fire scene when Chris sobs, “I wish I could go someplace where nobody knows me.” 

It was a powerfully acted scene that conveyed to viewers the depth of his inner most conflict and despair.  All he wanted was to break free from his predetermined path, but it seemed futile despite receiving encouragement from his best friend. The film’s director, Rob Reiner, later acknowledged that River Phoenix was naturally gifted and needed very little direction to evoke such deep emotion.  In fact, just 2 years later, at the age of 17, River Phoenix was nominated for his first Oscar for his performance in Running on Empty

Unfortunately, River’s budding career was cut short at the age of 23 when he died tragically. Fans never had the opportunity to see him further evolve as an actor.  Yet, his younger brother Joaquin knows what viewers of Stand by Me noticed and noted — River was a natural.  During countless interviews and even during his Academy Award acceptance speech Joaquin pays tribute to his brother River who inspired him to become an actor in the first place.

River Phoenix and the 3 other child actors gave wonderful performances in Stand by Me.  It all begins in their clubhouse when they hatch a secret plan to deceive their parents and travel miles away from home to find the dead body of the missing 12-year-old, Ray Bower.  The viewers are drawn into their world, scene after scene, as the boys face multiple challenges and dangers along the way. 

The four boys while different in appearance and personality share a camaraderie that is fueled by their life experiences.  We learn that even at this young age each  is dealing with elements of neglect, bullying, physical and emotional abuse, as well as inner conflict that has bound them together in fellowship.   These life experiences  combined with the adventure of a lifetime results in a spell bounding film that still evokes a strong response from me… 34 years later. 

Why watch?

  • Author Stephen King loves this film adaptation of his novel.  He has stated that this movie is autobiographical.
  • It’s River Phoenix’s breakout performance.  In the 8 years that followed he won countless awards for movies such as Running on Empty, My Own Private Idaho, and The Mosquito Coast.
  • The soundtrack is amazing!  In addition to Ben King’s Stand by Me, the film includes  Buddy Holly’s Everyday, Shirley & Kee’s Let the Good Times Roll, Lollipop by the Chordettes, Yakety Yak by the Coaster, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire among other period hits.
  • In addition to the 4 core actors River Phoenix, Will Wheaton (Star Trek Fame), Jerry O’Connell (Comedian) and Corey Feldman you get to see a young Kiefer Sutherland and John Cusack in supporting roles.

4 thoughts on “Before Joaquin There Was River: A Review of Stand by Me

    1. Thanks Maria for taking the time to read the article and leaving a comment. I enjoy introducing and watching movies from the 80s with my son. This one is a favorite and I wanted him to know River Phoenix was Joaquin’s older brother.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I never watched this movie but after reading your article, now I am intrigued! Thank you for sharing this. I loved the way you presented this and honored River Phoenix.

        Liked by 1 person

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