(Un)conventional: Family and Food in Stand by Me
by Patrick Kaper-Barcelata
Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner, follows four boys’ search for the body of a missing local teenager, Ray Brower. While the boys, for various reasons, face social exclusion and familial struggle, they find friendship in shared experience. The protagonist of the four, Gordie Lachance, feels invisible in his family, especially after the death of his beloved brother, Denny. After being asked about his brother by a store owner, Gordie experiences a flashback to a family dinner when Denny was still alive. The shot (Figure 1) opens on the dinner table, placing the viewer at the end of a hearty meal set in an inviting dining room. The neat table setting and thoughtful composition of the shared meal give the indication of a family that is intentional about togetherness. Yet, despite the impression of a utopian, united family, dialogue reveals relational distance. Gordie’s father, who sits alone at the head of the table, dominates the conversation and is interested only in Denny’s football season. Denny barely meets his eyes. Gordie asks his father to pass him the potatoes three times but receives not even a glance in his direction until his mother hears him and passes the dish. These failures to connect conflict with the expectation of conviviality conjured by the image of a shared family meal. This scene illustrates one of the film’s central messages: appearances can be misleading.
In this scene (Figure 2), the boys are on the second and last day of their journey to find Ray. Walking together, they use their hands to scoop some variety of purple berries or jam into their mouths. Instead of using plates, the boys each carry their food by creating a makeshift bucket with the bottom of their upturned shirts. Licking their fingers, they stain their face, hands, and clothes, paying little mind to cleanliness. In contrast to the neat and conventional presentation of the Lachance family dinner, this transitory meal is unruly and unconventional. Yet, despite lacking the accoutrements of a proper shared meal, this meal is characterized by an appreciable sense of family and community. There’s an egalitarian quality to this moment—underscored by the visual unity of the boys walking side by side—that is missing in the hierarchical presentation of Gordie’s family. The long stretch of railroad behind the boys, centered between them, underscores their commitment to this egalitarianism and to each other as a unit. Gordie displays a much greater sense of comfort, trust, and conviviality (all characterizing elements of family) here than in the aforementioned dinner scene. This distinction suggests that family is more about the nature of relationships than about convention and appearance.
Stand by Me. Dir. Rob Reiner. Columbia Pictures, 1986.