Over this summer our church Youth Group has been having a summer film club (not a single film from my list – I will be having words). When I though about alternatives the film at the top of the list was Stand By Me. To be honest, for me it would come close to the top of any list. It’s not just a coming of age movie, it’s THE coming of age movie. And even after over 25 years, it’s difficult to see how it can be improved. I’d go as far as saying it’s a perfect movie – all the elements come together to give an experience the like of which you’d find hard to replicate.
The thing about “coming of age” films though is that often they are underestimated, misunderstood and even avoided on the basis that “what has a film about four pre-teen boys got to say to me?”. Well, what does it have to do with me? Don’t be confused friends, this has everything to do with you – because firstly, since when is storytelling only about the familiar and close? But here in this story we get to grips with things that are indeed very familiar – and opens a door on elements of our lives that all of us have been through, will go through and are going through. Because we don’t “come of age” just once. We’re all constantly moving through phases of life, transitioning from one to another and the issues we face at each one are not wildly different, we just explore and experience them in different ways. Having said that, the tangible presence of the loss of childhood is a constant companion throughout the film – but isn’t that experience, that move, something that shapes each one of us for life.
Firsts and lasts That’s what coming of age is. But it’s only when you look back that you realise those things you did where the first and last time you did it. There’s that last golden summer, the one before things get really serious at school and before friends move out of your life. It was a long summer, a hot one. The one where you played in the river, or built mud pies; where you still ‘played out’, before discovering boys (or girls). It’s the last time you experience truly “acting your age”, before you start pretending you’re older… and then younger. The last time you were honest with yourself; the last time you consciously rebelled (you’ve been rebelling ever since, but potentially been in denial about it); the last time you cried in public; the last time you really thought your parents were gods; the last time you had full faith in authority. So many last times in that final golden summer of childhood. And in every stage there are last times – the last time you see your soulmate; the last time you lie to yourself; the last time you stayed indifferent – you all know your last times, those moments you never saw coming, and didn’t realise how important they were.
And the First times – the first time you stay overnight away from home; the first time you come to terms with your own mortality; the first time you face real danger; the first time you know real courage, faithfulness, beauty. The first time you rise to stand up and be counted.
I kinda love Ace Merril. He’s a bully’s bully. He is the pinnacle of what a true bully is. No part of him is even remotely sympathetic. He doesn’t have any issues, he doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, he doesn’t have any capacity for redemption, empathy or understanding. He’s just bad. He’s confident, knows he’s a winner, knows he’s the boss and knows he can pretty much make anyone do what he wants. With a look he can crush your spirit. He takes Gordie’s hat, not because he wants it – the hat doesn’t even mean that much to him – but because he can. He is utterly indifferent to the wants, needs and feelings of those around him. And you actually believe that he would kill for two thousand dollars (I’m guessing that was actually a great deal of money). And it’s because he’s all these things that the confrontation over the body is genuinely threatening and not a little bit scary – because you absolutely know he’s going to kill Chris. And it needs to be genuinely threatening for Gordie’s actions to be truly heroic. And it’s not just in the pointing of the gun – have you noticed the subtle way he isolates Ace? “Are you going to shoot us all?” “No Ace, just you.” And it’s that, the isolation, the undermining of his power, his strength – the making him not matter – which essentially beats Ace and makes him back down (though on some watchings I do wonder what happens afterwards – he makes some vague threats as he leaves and I do wonder whether it’s just bluster or he really means he’ll come after them once they’re all back in town). For all of us, the final confrontation with a bully – or an “enemy” who has dogged us for some time – is a defining moment, a moment which drives us into the next step of life, it’s one of the great catalysts for “coming of age”. Choosing not to confront but to back down, that’s what keeps us where we are.
Grief with a side order of guilt – and a tiny bit about parenting
Grief is an important, necessary, common and life changing process. And if approached in an utterly self-oriented way can be utterly destructive to those around you. It’s one of those things that is utterly personal, and individual process that has common themes but myriad pathways and outworkings. It’s something that if you haven’t been unlucky to experience as yet, I guarantee will come at some point. But I beg you, please learn from the family we’re shown here. Because if it is a uniquely individual process it’s also (contrarily so) a communal process if you’re to truly understand and move through it [ed. I’d never say move past it or get over it. For some people the Grief never goes away, it merely becomes a dull aches that reminds us its there once in a while – and that’s really okay. Please don’t say to a grieving person, either with words, attitude or action that it’s really time they get “over it” now and move on. This is one of the least helpful things you can ever say to someone who is grieving] When you look at this family – Gordie, his parents and the sadly deceased brother, you see that even prior to Denny’s death that there are issues. It’s something many younger siblings can relate to – basically when the older one is in the room, you don’t exist. I’d hope those of you who are parents out there wouldn’t be so overtly favouristic with their children – but even subtextual favouritism is not missed by the young (or old), they really do pick up on all the signels and as soon as it becomes apparent that one sibling is favoured over the other… it’s tough to get back on an even keel from any side. This dysfunction in the family lays the seeds for the poor way their grief is dealt with. Because the father can’t connect with his son, because the mother potentially blames the father for pushing Denny too hard and not “living life”, because Gordie feels like the only family member who “liked” him is gone, none of them can use the community they have to engage in the important grieving steps of sharing stories about their lost one. They can’t use each other to shout at, scream at, cry with and also laugh with. And that pit of guilt that Gordie has dug for himself? It’s not an unusual reaction – grief is more often than not accompanied by and exacerbated by a big dollop of guilt – ranging from the “it’s all my fault” school to Gordie’s “it should have been me”. Know you’re not alone in feeling this, know that some of the wisest and most “together” people around you have felt this – And know that any amount of talking probably won’t help, but sometimes, hugs can.
Friends – will you stand by me?
Like the four friends I’d invite you on this trip. This journey that is a story being told by each of us, to each of us and for each of us. A pure moment of firsts and lasts. A transformative confrontation with the bullies of our lives. A journey through grief, through joy, through companionship. And don’t forget the stops along the way. The lunchtime where we may step over a forbidden line into “unauthorised” territory; where myth and reality might collide and our eyes become opened. Sharing those moments where you thought you couldn’t do something, then suddenly newly motivated you can do it to excel (The world’s greatest train dodge – if you think you can’t run, try running from a train). And the Campfires. Essential to community, the pointless but utterly compelling conversations, the shared meal, the shared warmth and of course the stories. That there is a story within the story here is no mere “time-filler”. It’s a reminder that without stories, community cannot and will not function.
What stories will you share? What journey are you about to embark on? What are you going to do for the last time today? Or the First time? Whatever they are, do it with your community. Alone we become dad’s who make our children feel like they’re hated. Alone we become mum’s who make their children feel like they’re invisible. Alone we pre-judge the kid from a bad background and end up stealing not just the money he himself stole, but his dignity and self-worth. Alone we become both the bully and the victim – with no-one to have our back. Alone, we simply stagnate and can never come of age. Share your journey today and Stand By Me.