Thursday, August 10, 2017

Coming of Age with NOW AND THEN & STAND BY ME

by Lexy Van Dyke and Patrick Bromley
Lexy and Patrick look back at two similar coming of age dramas and find truth in both.

Lexy: Now and Then was a story I thought was copied straight out of my life in middle school. I had four friends with whom I was extremely close. We lived in a small town, where the furthest we had to walk to get to each other’s house was cutting across the football field. Sadly, we didn’t not have the best soundtrack of all time (like the pop perfection of “Sugar, Sugar”) to accompany our adolescent adventures. But also the fascination with death and sexuality arose around this time. My friends and I held seances every sleepover and, being inspired by this film, even tried to sneak out to go to the local graveyard (unsuccessfully) to hold one. And of course, boys. That’s what our life was.

I think what Now and Then handles so wonderfully is what it is like being a teenage girl and tackle the 'big questions' -- these questions that we want to tackle but don’t have the mental ability to handle quite yet. How do we explore death? By exploring the taboo like Ouijia boards and tarot cards. How do we escape the inability to handle our parents' divorce? By diving headfirst into the mystery surrounding local legend to distract your friends and yourself.

I had never seen Stand By Me, but always thought it to be a male counterpoint. Being aware of general pop culture, I had an idea of what it was about: four male friends around adolescence sneak out to see a dead body. Also, it’s based on a novella by Stephen King called The Body. So I was always intrigued to watch them both and look at each film’s point of view of adolescence from different gender perspective. Did you watch either of these films or relate to them growing up?
Patrick: Well, now, here’s where I need to reveal that I am very, very old, because while Stand By Me was a movie I watched quite a bit growing up, Now and Then came out in 1995, the year I graduated high school. I went to see it the Friday night it hit the second run near my house, making me the only solo male high school senior in attendance. I felt weird and bad about being there. Worse, I felt weird and bad about how much I liked the movie, which I maintain is the closest thing I may ever have to a guilty pleasure (if I believed in such things). Because it’s a movie about young girls and presumably aimed at them as well, there’s always been a part of my brain that tells me I’m wrong to respond to it the way that I do. Most of the time, I’m able to tell this part of my brain to fuck off. My brain is an asshole.

But, truth be told, there’s something I connect more with in the nostalgia of Now and Then than I do to Stand By Me, which I think is the better-made movie of the two. Now and Then is kind of hacky, what with the “get it? It’s the ‘70s” soundtrack (that I have listened to dozens of times, make no mistake) and the distracting cameos and, worst of all, the whole conceit of the adults/kids casting. I truly believe that the movie does not need the adult stuff and would be better if that had just been cut out, leaving a movie about a group of girlfriends over the course of one summer. There is no shortage of entries in this coming-of-age genre, but Now and Then cuts to certain feelings and emotional truths better than most.

I think there’s a larger discussion to be had about why I tend to identify more strongly with certain female protagonists than with male ones, but maybe that’s a conversation better had on a therapist’s couch and is outside the scope of our discussion. So I’ll get back to the question at hand: I grew up with one and later found the other, but hold both movies close to my heart. Yes, I know that Now and Then is sort of a cynical attempt at making Stand By Me for young girls, but what’s wrong with that?

I’m curious about how you reacted to Stand By Me, having first seen it as an adult. That’s a very different set of eyes than the ones with which I saw the movie, so I’m wondering if it still works for you? And are there elements of either film you see as very gender-specific, in that it couldn’t work with the genders reversed?
Lexy: That’s the hard part of watching these two films as an adult: the story is already ingrained in me and the similarities pop with this insight. I did enjoy Stand By Me and it is a more stripped down and serious coming of age story, as they deal with a death of an actual child and there are some real class issues happening between Gordie and Chris. I have to say that the narration worked less for me in Stand By Me. It probably IS more necessary than in Now and Then due to the explanation at the end and relating the narrator to Stephen King. The kids' story was strong enough without it. And I haven’t seen a ton of River Phoenix films, but he is so phenomenal in this movie. The scene where him and Gordie talk next to the campfire about his destiny as a ‘rotten kid’ nearly crushed me.

I am with you that Stand By Me is a technically “better” movie. The story moves swiftly and all the right notes need to be hit. But the kids in Stand By Me do not feel quite as “lived in” as in Now and Then. I believe the friendships in Now and Then more than in Stand By Me. Maybe that has to do with the adult wraparound. Stand By Me feels like amazing kid actors really selling their lines, while Now and Then feels like there just happens to be a camera around during these four friends' adolescent life.

Maybe it’s my inherent knowledge of one movie versus the other, but I think the story in Stand By Me could be either gender while the story in Now and Then could only be female. Stand By Me is basically a kids' road trip story. I could buy a group of girls going to see a dead body. The story in Now and Then feels inherently female. The connections that are forged in the movie feel almost too deep for a male-centric movie. I feel very backwards typing that, but as you see in Stand By Me, emotion is shunned in films about male adolescence. All the emotion is hidden behind camp fire talk and narration. In Now and Then, the story is almost secondary, and what shines is affection and friendship.

Do you think the emotional warmth is what you connect with in Now and Then? Do the genders make a difference to you in the films? Or do one, or both, stories rise above the gender dynamics?
Patrick: I do think it’s the emotional connections that draw me to Now and Then. The story is very episodic and sometimes a little far-fetched, but I like that even those scenes that are a little tough to believe (I’m thinking specifically of the near-drowning) always come back to the friendships between the girls. The moment where Christina Ricci breaks down in the attic really pulls the whole movie together for me and sells the connection between the four girls, and while I do think that sometimes the film stretches to make each of the friends stock “types,” the actors all find ways to find commonality between them all so that they’re not only believable as friends, but also as real people.

But just as Now and Then is pretty specifically a story of female friendship, I think Stand By Me is very much a story about male adolescence. This is not me mansplaining boy friendships, but I feel like a lot of that camp fire talk is what stands in for honest emotional dialogue among boys a lot of the time. Talking about comic books and cartoons is how these characters relate to one another; I might make an argument that it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t always go away, either, which is why so many men I know are anxious to talk about sports (or whatever) with their friends -- and, in some cases, family. What sets the friendship between Gordy and Chris apart from the friendships with the other boys is that they are able to talk past that surface stuff and have conversations about their actual feelings. I had one or two of those friends as a kid, too. By setting their relationship apart from the others, Stand By Me throws the language of young male friendships into even sharper relief.

It’s interesting, too, that in both movies I have always identified most with the Wil Wheaton and Gaby Hoffman characters, both of whom later become writers. I have never really considered myself a writer -- even now when it’s what I spend most of my time doing -- but I guess there’s something about the way both characters observe and internalize the world that hits home with me. Are there characters in either or both movies that you feel especially close to?

Lexy: Feel free to mansplain to me! That is why I wanted to discuss this with a man and explore that point of view further. And the reason I probably connect with Chris and Gordie the most is because they are able to express past the surface stuff of the other two boys. I never got to see a ton of emotion from men until I was older. The boys I grew up with were strong but stoic, so getting any emotion out of them was slightly like pulling teeth. Maybe that’s why I felt emotion in males were hidden or shunned, but instead they were expressing it in way that I couldn’t understand. That is a part of growing older and looking back. You see things you never saw before, which is kind of what these films are all about.

The character I connected with the most in Now and Then was definitely Gaby Hoffman. Her standoffish manners but general likeability was something I related to a lot. I was lucky to not have to deal with my parents divorce growing up (or now), but her search for meaning in the paranormal was something I also did. I’m really surprised I never watched more horror growing up with the amount occult and abnormal I was into as a teenager. I have also been an observer like her character, which comes hand in hand with the need to write down those experiences. I don’t really see myself as a writer either (although you are an actual writer). I see myself more like a long-form observationist.
In Stand By Me, I related the most to Chris. I think it’s because I have always felt a bit like an outsider. His discussion with Gordie about being judged regarding stealing is something I completely related to. I was lucky to not be judged because of my poor family and their assumed criminal behavior, but being told to be one thing your whole life and knowing you’re not that is the ultimate round peg-square hole situation. Just now as a 30-year old woman, I am able to finally be comfortable enough to be the person I have always known I was and let the expectations fall away.

My daughter is five and still a bit young for these films. So far I am lucky in that my daughter has been onboard for most of my nostalgia watches (except for The Little Mermaid; that one still breaks my heart, a bit). So when the time comes, I will most likely throw Now and Then on for our Saturday Night Movie time and see how it rolls. I think I will definitely put on Stand by Me as well. I can only hope that these films will connect with her on a similar level and help her adjust to adolescence.

Do you think these are movies you are going to want to experience with your kids or let them find on their own? Do you think they’ll hold them as close their heart as you do?

Patrick: I will definitely show both movies to my kids, though Stand by Me will be a little later than Now and Then. My son, who is eight, is getting more into shows with human actors versus cartoons and seems to be responding to some of the melodrama of a Disney show like, say, Andi Mack. He might be ready for Now and Then now (as opposed to then), but part of me doesn’t want to show it to him because I can just imagine that he’ll watch it, he’ll be polite, he’ll even enjoy it, but he won’t live with it at all. And it’s not even that the movie means SO much to me, but it would break my heart to show him something that I want for him to connect with on an emotional level and have it be just another piece of disposable entertainment. I’ve learned that trying to get him to love anything is a recipe for sadness; I just have to learn to let him discover the stuff he’s going to discover and live the rest of my life in crushing disappointment when he only discovers stuff that’s not great.
That idea you bring up about finally being able to be comfortable in who you know yourself to be as an adult really resonates with me, and maybe part of what I respond to be in both these movies, too. I know I said I could do without some of the adult stuff in Now and Then, but the fact that it’s there serves the same function as the Richard Dreyfuss stuff in Stand by Me: it tells us that these kids are going to be ok, and that the things that make them feel different or misunderstood in childhood (in Wil Wheaton’s case, by his own family) will actually serve them well as adults. There is something comforting to that as a kid who feels a little bit like an outcast. Even though I think I’ve always been pretty comfortable with who I am -- it’s one of the few good things I can say about myself -- I still connect to that idea in the movie. Probably wishful thinking on my part, since the quiet, introspective characters are the ones who become successful writers -- or, as you so eloquently stated, long-form observationalists. That will never be me, but aren’t movies also about wish fulfillment?


  1. I feel like I need to watch Now and Then first before I read this. Before I get a chance to do that though I apparently need to watch The Bye Bye Man.

  2. Me too. Like Patrick, I graduated high school when Now and Then came out (I've never even heard of it), and was watching movie like Kids (1995) and Pulp Fiction.

    Stand by Me I loved as a kid, but haven't seen it since watching it on VHS as a kid. I've added it to the list "to watch with my own kids" list.