The Real Kids
Emily Condon on thirteen and Stand by Me
Young people face, and have probably always faced, a uniquely cruel set of circumstances in that they’re subject to two seemingly contradictory forces: a linear ambition compels them to join the world of adults, but in engaging with that world they render childish pleasures obsolete. That this is both a choice and an inevitability does nothing to blunt the fact of it, and even in the best scenarios this progression constitutes a loss. The essential nature of that loss—the first in a long line of steps toward death, since in one sense we don’t begin to die until we comprehend our own mortality—means it is both deeply felt and difficult to articulate. The endurance of coming-of-age stories in literature and cinema, however, suggests that the difficulties contained therein are hardly enough to stop artists from trying.
Hallmarks of this genre might be more difficult to peg than say, the Western, since it spans a wider divergence of setting, visual style, tone, et cetera, but the crux of these stories lies in the tension between our need to evolve and our desire for retreat. Time’s forward momentum might be the most difficult fact we will ever confront, and we come to understand its implications—tentatively at first—at the same instant that we are saddled with a thorny mix of social and biological changes. This complication helps imbue coming-of-age movies with meaning. Perhaps because teenagers so often conflate experience with authenticity, filmmakers who tell their stories seem to strive extra hard to establish a kind of gritty validity. But too often, these stabs at reality take the place of truth.
Coming-of-age movies reached an apex of popularity in the 1980s, and any survey of titles from that time will reveal a wide range of quality. Certainly some that have been largely relegated to the VHS heap of history are worth revisiting: Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, released in 1985 by a short-lived company called International Spectrafilm, comes to mind, as does Permanent Record, a 1988 Paramount title. Others rather unfortunately persist in the cultural lexicon (I’m looking at you, Dirty Dancing). But a handful still stand out as particularly remarkable examples of the genre, and none more so than Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner and released by Columbia Pictures in 1986.
Adapted from Stephen King’s novella The Body, Stand by Me opens with a melancholy instrumental version of Ben E. King’s by-now classic soul song of the same name, ubiquitous enough to be instantly recognizable. An aerial shot of a vehicle parked alongside a wheat field slowly pans in, and inside the truck sits a man, Gordon LaChance (Richard Dreyfuss), holding a newspaper. The headline reads, “Attorney Christopher Chambers stabbed in restaurant.” Boys ramble by on dirt bikes.
“I was twelve going on thirteen the first time I saw a dead body,” he tells us in voiceover. “It happened in the summer of 1959. A long time ago, but only if you measure in terms of years…” The action then moves to 1959, and Gordie, a skinny, big-eyed, sweet-faced twelve-year-old (played by Wil Wheaton) skitters down a street that the adult Gordon tells us is in Castle Rock, Oregon, population 1281. “To me,” he recalls, “it was the whole world.” “Rockin’ Robin” bounces across the soundtrack and Gordie proceeds to a tree house he shares with his three apparently ne’er do well best friends, Chris (River Phoenix) Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), who are smoking, laughing, gawking at nudie mags, and lobbing insults like “you four-eyed piece of shit” and “piss up a rope.”
Vern, not the type to keep a secret, tells his buddies that while he was under the porch digging for a lost jar of pennies, he overheard his older brother discussing the corpse of Ray Brauer, a missing kid who’d presumably been hit by the train while out picking blueberries. Vern’s brother and his hood friend had been cruising around in a stolen car 20 miles or so from town and spotted the body, but they couldn’t reveal their finding lest they reveal their crime. Vern’s accidental discovery provides the boys with the opportunity to be heroes, and, after concocting a series of lies to fool their parents, they set out with canteens, camping gear, and a .45 (“I copped it from my old man’s bureau,” says Chris) for the long walk ahead. Young though they are, they’re all too familiar with pain—Gordie’s older, idol-like brother died a few months earlier in a jeep accident, Chris hails from a family of troublemakers; Teddy had part of his ear burned off by his drunk dad, who he nevertheless defends (“he stormed the beach at Normandy!”); Vern’s good nature does nothing to stop the world from laughing at him. But what doesn’t cripple us makes us stronger: “We knew exactly who we were,” the adult Gordon recalls, with a healthy dose of irony, “and where we were going.”
Some critics of the film have suggested that the boys are too wise, their self-awareness too potent. The New York Times snickered at what they deemed the “infallible foresight possessed by youngsters in movies such as this,” judging the boys’ explicit conversations about matters from their families to their feelings to their plans for the future, etc. to be implausible. This ignores the fact that it’s clear from the opening moments that we’re watching a framed story (which, not incidentally, is adapted from a novella in which the author fictionalized an episode from his own youth). Far from a banal Spielbergian bookend, Stand By Me’s framing device effectively dispels any pretension that what we are watching is “real,” while also offering fiction as a crucial means through the morass of childhood, of adulthood, of life. It’s a movie that closes with a blinking computer-screen cursor—an image of pure possibility. This notion is reinforced by countless details and formal decisions as brilliant as they are subtle. When Vern sighs, leans back, and declares “there’s nothing like a smoke after a good meal,” his attempt to ape adult mannerisms is absurd, but he’s happy, too, trying out a too-big-suit and liking the fit. The fact that it’s fiction doesn’t make it untrue.
Stand by Me is not about experience so much as learning to live with our flaws and limitations. Though the narrative flirts with notions of redemption, in the end it advocates, subtly and crucially, agency. In one poignant scene, Teddy attacks an old junkyard operator for calling his dad a loon. In another, funnier moment, Gordie’s fictional hero Lard-Ass Hogan drinks castor oil and vomits all over his tormentors (cementing this story-within-a-story’s status as pure fiction are perfectly executed details like the “CASTOR OIL” bottle label—plain black block lettering on a white background). These boys take action, knowing there will be consequences. Even the dead boy, Ray Brauer, exerts a kind of influence—throughout the first two acts, when the boys are in pursuit of his corpse, the camera hovers behind them, shooting from an unspecified point-of-view. As they close in on the body, it lurks behind vines and trees, producing an increasingly otherworldly sensation.
But the heart of this story is Gordie (complemented by his best friend, Chris, the soul), and it is his agency that matters most. This brainy, retreating boy comes into his own only when he makes the unlikely decision to stand up and take charge in a desperate conflict, one we know will lead to other, more important confrontations. Gordon the man locates whatever meaning and solace he can find in the act of creation. In that act, we find truth.
In 2002, veteran production designer Catherine Hardwicke set out to find her own kind of truth about teenagers when she teamed up with Nikki Reed, a thirteen-year-old she’d taken under her wing several years prior. The story goes that Reed was struggling through adolescence, and Hardwicke suggested that the act of writing a screenplay about her experiences might assuage some of the turbulence. Together they wrote a script about a kind of love/hate/trauma triangle between good-girl-goes-bad Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), her home hairstylist/recovering alcoholic mom Mel (Holly Hunter), and trouble-in-a-tank-top best friend Evie (Reed, doing double duty), the most popular girl in school.
They got the film produced, with Hardwicke in the director’s chair (it was her feature debut – five years later she’d direct Twilight), and Fox Searchlight premiered thirteen at Sundance in January of 2003 to obsequious accolades from festival types and critics, particularly those of the middle-aged male persuasion. Roger Ebert bafflingly declared himself “prepared to believe the movie is a truthful version of real experiences” because he found Reed’s performance “persuasive and convincing,” while Elvis Mitchell’s New York Times review could have been filed from Film 101 class: “Working with the cinematographer Elliot Davis, Ms. Hardwicke obviously chose [an] unsettled style to evoke Tracy's state of mind.”
In one of those “conversation piece” trailers, cut after the film’s release, Nikki Reed articulates her intentions in writing the film. “Everyone will go through this,” she says with the smoky blend of intensity and indifference she brings to her role as Evie. “So why not be as honest as possible?”
Gesturing at the holy grail of contemporary indie cinema, authenticity, she fails to explain exactly what “this” is. Surely she’s not suggesting that every seventh-grader drinks, drugs, cuts, fucks, grinds, cries, confronts, kicks, skips, shoves, steals, seduces, screams, smokes, provokes, pierces without protection, violently boasts about her lack of underpants, and earns the appellation of “cunt” from a plastic surgery-scarred stand-in parent, though Tracy enjoys these and other delights during the 100 long minutes that comprise thirteen. Rather, we can guess she means that most of us slog through our teenage years, and in this she might be right. But what rankles is her claim—echoed by Hardwicke and the film’s many appreciators—on honesty, her implication that the hysterics that unfold over the course of thirteen comprise an authentic portrait of the protracted and often horrifically lonely experience of being young and feeling misunderstood.
However well-intentioned, thirteen is symptomatic of the sickness that plagues so many of today’s “independent” films, embracing its status as a low-budget message movie that ennobles working-class caricatures as “authentic” and suggests that the more dirt and blood and brutality is inflicted upon the characters, the more real they feel. Hardwicke’s film does occasionally stab at big concepts, as when Tracy, in search of the elusive Evie, descends from a bus on Melrose and stands in front of a bus stop ad of a woman’s face—bright white skin, bright red lips—that reads “Beauty is Truth,” underscoring, one supposes, the girls’ notion that surface is more important than substance. (In case we didn’t get it the first time, the camera again lingers on the same image later in the scene). Perhaps the production designer in Hardwicke couldn’t resist positioning set pieces to stand in for actual substantive ideas.
To the degree that there’s any argument in thirteen, it seems to be something like “the billboards made them do it,” an idea we have trouble refuting, since we’re given so little insight into the interior lives of the two teenaged leads. Our lack of access has less to do with Wood’s and Reed’s performances (indeed, the former really goes at Tracy with gusto), and more to do with the fact that the movie—the one seemingly striving to condemn superficiality—devotes so much attention to artifice and aesthetics that it fails on almost every level to convince. Hardwicke does sometimes impress in her eye for detail (e.g. Mel’s fingers are permanently stained from the dye she applies on her clients), but what was once a revolution in thinking—i.e., the effort to examine real lives over Hollywood frivolity—has, in thirteen, devolved into an exercise in style, a bag of cinematic tricks. When experimental Tracy ingests intoxicants, bodies and neon lights careen in and out of the frame. Angry Tracy is announced through throbbing guitar chords. Cutting Tracy is shot in jagged close-up and shadow. Most puzzling is the third act, shot in different stock and tinted so blue that if you’d nodded off for a moment, you’d think you’d awoken to a different film.
This dependence on unsubtle visual cues presents political problems in addition to aesthetic ones—Tracy and Evie’s downward spiral, for instance, is indicated in part by their escapades with black men, men whose degree of blackness appears to exist in direct proportion to their badness. thirteen proves itself unable to delve beneath the superficial, and embodies a fundamentally flawed notion that a supposed stripping of artifice—crazy-shaky-tilting camerawork, film color, and a little grit in the tile—can convey truth. We understand Tracy and Evie enjoy the kind of intense and all-encompassing obsession for each other that only teenage girls can have, but we never feel it—there’s too much technique in the way. (Only Mel escapes this to any extent, and only because Hunter acts the hell out of the role).
But there’s a larger failing, too, one that stands in direct opposition to Stand by Me, and one that’s essential when considering the film’s place in the larger genre to which it belongs. As the story hurtles toward its climax, Mel and Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), Evie’s shady “guardian,” discover the girls’ stash, squirreled away amongst their assorted accoutrements. A fight breaks out. Brooke absconds with Evie, and Mel and Tracy grapple and cry on the kitchen floor. “DON’T HOLD ME!” Tracy screeches, while Mel kisses her daughter’s self-inflicted wounds. After a bit of this, they make their way to Tracy’s bed and lie down together. Time-lapse shots show them and the light shifting positions as the color gradually returns to the scene, the clear implication being that now that Mel has wrestled control away from Tracy, all is on its way to being right with the world.
In simultaneously absolving individual responsibility through its “redeemed by love” guise and positing choice as the determining factor in an individual’s ability (or inability) to thrive, thirteen confuses the relationship between Tracy’s actions and their attendant consequences. The creaky cogitations about parental power in the face of teenage rage evoke a sense that something important is going on, but it’s never exactly clear what, and in the end the film reifies the condescending notion that teenagers are incapable of finding their own way.
It may be tempting or easy to believe that blatant displays of agony capture hard-won truths, or to buy the notion that thirteen is, in the words of one critic, “a razor-sharp portrait of the way women live now.” But careful consideration in the clear light of day exposes this way of thinking as just another falsehood. Gordon LaChance finds redemption from pain through the power of articulation. All Tracy Freeland does is scream.