When I think of films that completely defined the 80s for me, several come to mind. It’s a sign that I’m getting old when I mentioned one of my favorite films, Stand By Me, to a couple different students last week who stared at me blankly. Then to say, “you know, with River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton?” and hear, “Who’s River Phoenix?” – it sort of just makes me cringe. Granted, I shouldn’t hold this against them. After all, several of them weren’t even born when the film came out. Sailor hadn’t even seen it, so we dialed it up this weekend while I was couch-bound with a stomach bug. I love coming back to pop culture at different moments in your life – it almost always retains some of the original impact, offers a sort of nostalgia for the past, and can shed light on what you’re experiencing now.
Quick recap for those not in the know – Stand By Me is a film released in 1986 based on the Stephen King short story “The Body.” Directed by Rob Reiner (who most recently directed The Bucket List, and whose credits include other classics like Misery, A Few Good Men and The Princess Bride), it’s a coming of age drama about four boys growing up in a small town in Oregon. The main characters are played by River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell with other significant roles played by Kiefer Sutherland in his hoodlum/punk phase pre-Jack Bauer awesomeness and John Cusack back when his career wasn’t a farce that needed a time machine. When the boys learn the location of a dead body, they embark on a two-day journey that helps them learn about life and death.
What I remember about the film from my first experience is that a) I was in love with River Phoenix, b) the dead body was a lot scarier, and c) I felt kind of sad that I was a girl, because boy bonding looked way cooler than girl bonding. I guess that makes sense if I’m watching this in middle school. What interests me about it now in retrospect, after years of critically analyzing media, is how timeless the story is – the trials and tribulations of growing up, defining identity from adolescence to adulthood, and the pain of loss that never goes away. We also have a kind of cultural obsession with childhood friends, though this nostalgia may be tempered by today’s technological ability to remain “in touch” with so many from our pasts. The performances turned in by Phoenix and Wheaton fill the screen and perfectly capture tortured youth searching for ways to define existence. Phoenix explained his experience on the film saying, “I realized that what I was creating was going to live on far longer than anything of me as a person. The characters are more powerful than the person that creates them.”
Also, revisiting River Phoenix is spooky. He spoke to a lot of people, and saw things about culture that went largely unnoticed at the time (check out this interview where he claims the celebrity culture of Hollywood is out of control). Halloween of 1993 was crazy. The news of Phoenix’s death surprised a lot of people, but I distinctly remember feeling numb – numb from the shock and from the eerie sense that it made sense at the same time. From everything that surfaced both before and after his death, it’s a strong possibility that Phoenix was bisexual – or if not, at least sexually experimental in ways several youth didn’t have language for in the 80s – and in several public appearances in the early 90s, it was clear he was into drugs. And maybe that’s why I always had this strong affinity for him – seeing something behind the eyes that produced riveting performances, knowing that something darker was underneath.
Substance abuse, suicide and depression are rampant among LGBT youth, and the prevalence of drug or alcohol use among bisexual youth is 340% greater than the rate among straight teens. Though rates of addiction and depression have decreased for LGBT youth in recent years (which I firmly believe is linked to increased media representation and language to talk about sexuality), those youth growing up in the United States obviously still live in a cultural climate that is hostile to any non-heterosexual identity. It’s hard. It’s a terribly hard existence, and it’s little wonder that Phoenix (or any other young person living in that time period) would look for ways to escape. Everyone does stupid things in their teens or 20s, but for youth struggling with depression, substance abuse or self-abusive behavior, there are a series of double-binds in place that make it hard for things to ever feel any better. I lost a family member, a friend, and saw many other people I knew go through these issues. It’s a constant barrage of wanting to help, feeling helpless, hoping for understanding, and encountering judgment in return. It affects your life every day, even after those people aren’t part of it any more.
So, I never KNEW River Phoenix – this is entirely my speculation/narration as to what his presence meant to me and how I make sense of it in retrospect. And I do feel the absence of his presence a little bit each day, the same way I feel the absence of so many other wonderful people who touched the world in ways they probably never knew. It’s fitting that Phoenix’s character’s death is what prompts the retelling of the story in the film – that those stories will always “stand by” us as part of a cultural legacy, a legacy I hope youth can learn from to make their lives better today.
(Because I touch on some pretty weighty issues here, I wanted to make sure the following information was available – if you are (or someone you know is) struggling with depression, addiction, or other self-abusive behaviors, please check out the resources available through organizations like Hopeline or TWLOHA.)