Twenty-five years ago this weekend, I saw Stand By Me for the first time. On his blog, Wil Wheaton wrote about how the movie changed his life. No doubt. He went from regular kid to movie star appearing on-Good-Morning-America, to Wesley Crusher, to nerd god. Albeit to a lesser degree, it changed my life too.
I was 14, and ninth grade was starting the following week. I was already nervous about it. I’ve written about it before: my friends were blossoming, and I wasn’t. My hair was either too short or went every which way, I still had braces, and till recently, glasses too. I had gained weight that year, and all of my pants were too tight. Conversely, none of my tops were baggy enough, at least not by ’80s’ standards. The night before the first day of school, I spent a lot of time stretching out a sweater vest, to its ruination.
I had a heavy fantasy life, in which I imagined myself a movie star – more specifically a triple threat: actor, singer, and dancer. I had different parents (neither of whom was Chinese), a slew of brothers and sisters, a movie star boyfriend.
I was talking less and less with my friends. Partly I was insecure, and partly it seemed their conversations seemed entirely taken up with wry comments. Once at a sleepover, I tried to talk to them about what it was like to be the only Chinese kid for miles around. Elaine, who had a grandmother who was half-Native American, tried to understand.
“Someone told me once that was awful,” she said. “But I don’t mind.”
“Don’t mind?!” I cried. I would have been proud to have Native American blood. Meanwhile, my other friend Elise rolled around bored on the floor.
But when Elaine and my other friend Susan invited me along to Stand By Me, I said sure. I wanted to see the movie, and what else did I have to do?
What unfolded on the screen wasn’t just a great story and great acting, but a friendship and friends I coveted. I didn’t want to sit around watching MTV, painting my nails, and analyzing clothes and boys. (Most likely, my friends did talk about deeper things, but I had so isolated myself, I didn’t know. I kept away from them, and in turn they kept away from me.) I wanted a life and death friendship, someone to share dark secrets with, and who’d share them with me. I wanted to traipse through the woods and have an adventure, not go to the mall again, where the boys’ heads turned, though never for me. I wanted to be a writer like Gordy. I wanted a best friend like Chris, even to lose him later, to lose him too soon.
On the car ride back home, my head churned. My friends talked about how hot Keifer Sutherland was.
That year began my obsession with all things Stand By Me. I read, and re-read, the novella the movie was based on, Stephen King’s The Body, which changed my life again. I wanted to write like that, full of voice, not just tell a story. And I tried that summer. I basically wrote about my life, and how unhappy I was, but it didn’t go much further than that.
I bought the soundtrack on cassette tape and listened to it, especially the title track, over and over.
That March when Stand By Me was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, I got so excited during the Oscars broadcast, I jumped up and down and squealed involuntarily.
I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation mostly because Wil Wheaton was in it. And then I decided it was a pretty good show too.
I developed a wicked crush on River Phoenix. I pored over the issue of Seventeen magazine with him on the cover, and the photo shoot of him and Meredith Salinger, both in the terrible A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. I didn’t care that it was terrible. I watched it, when it came on cable, over and over.
I tried to watch every single thing River was in. The Explorers. Some dumb TV movie. That time he was on Family Ties (so was Wil Wheaton once). Little Nikita. The Mosquito Coast. Running On Empty. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (River playing a young Harrison Ford, who played his father in The Mosquito Coast?! squeee!!!). Dogfight. I Love You to Death.
By then we had moved to a new town, and life was somewhat better. I fit in better with the nerdy Asian crowd. I was better off with just a few friends and not a huge group. As the new kid, being solitary was okay. I continued to write.
My Own Private Idaho was the last movie I saw with him. I was a sophomore going to college in New York City. I was still writing.
Two years later, on Halloween day, River Phoenix died. I remember very clearly: I was home for the weekend, and watching TV. I perked up when I heard something about River Phoenix, and then was shocked to hear about his death.
I’m sure it’s already been written, probably by Wheaton himself, how strangely parallel the lives of River and Wheaton and their characters are. Wheaton became a writer, just like Gordy. River died young. It’s very strange to think that River Phoenix, if he were alive now, would be over 40.
All of this makes me want to watch Stand By Me again, which I haven’t seen in many years, and to reread The Body. Maybe they will remind me again why I became a writer. Maybe they’ll inspire me in the same way.