Maya Seligman
September 23, 1996
English 95: American Narrative Cinema
Swarthmore College

Youth in Movies

"No, I won't be afraid, Just as long as you stand, Stand by me," we all sang together. The ten of us were sprawled across a living room floor in sleeping bags, our attention focused on the TV, the screen showing four pre-teen boys walking along railroad tracks. Stand by Me was the standard rental for slumber parties, so this scene was relived many times for me throughout fifth, sixth and seventh grades. There were some given ingredients for overnight girl gatherings: ordering pizza, making ice cream sundaes in our PJs, sharing our deepest secrets (usually focusing on the juicy gossip of boy crushes), playing Truth or Dare, and arranging pillows on the couch and floor to watch our beloved Stand by Me.

There was something about this film that made it easy to watch many times over again, each being a fulfilling group experience. Not only did the movie star some sweet young actors (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and others), but it also showed a reality nearly free from parental constraints. The characters were brave, rebelling against the rules to run away from home on a true adventure. These traveling boys relied on their friendship to pull them through the tough times (i.e. leeches, a fast-moving train and a dead corpse). As much as they teased each other, they also needed each other -- a total reliance on group loyalty.

Watching this movie as a group was in itself a unifying experience. By watching this story unfold before us, we all went through the same emotions together for two straight hours. The actual act of watching rented movies together became a sort of bonding ritual for my girlfriends and I, although we didn't consciously think of it like that at the time. Back at school, after the weekend's slumber party, our conversation would often contain references to Stand by Me, and it wasn't unusual to hear us singing songs from the movie after lunch, as we walked across the playground's grass field. This film represented youth to me. It was about innocence, pie-eating contests, exploration into independence, storytelling, friendships, cherry Pez and just bein' a kid.

My vision of some of these subjects got shaken up last year when I saw the more current film, Kids. This docu-drama affected me to my very core, its harsh portrayal of youth leaving me feeling raw and bruised. I saw it with a large group of fellow Swatties on the Intercultural Center's large-screen television. Like Stand by Me, this film deals with issues of growing up, taking us viewers into the heart of the pubescent world of reality. Yet Kids depicts it in a much different way, for now the major issues at hand are urban pressures of drugs, guns, AIDS and rape. Characters still have groups of friends, yet trust is difficult to develop when these "friends" are constantly using each other for their material assets: money and sex. The dangers of New York City's streets require the kids to have individual self-reliance, each out for him or herself.

As I sat watching the scenes of this new reality, I went through a similar group experience as the ones at my slumber parties years ago. I shared an emotional experience with the other viewers around me watching the exact same narrative -- now just a more extreme version. By the end of the film when the credits were rolling, I and many people around me had tears running down our faces. We sat for a moment in numb silence before everyone split off in their own ways to further digest the after-taste of Kids.

I ran back to my dorm and sat in the bathroom crying for the next half hour. How close was this movie to a documentary of real kids, I wondered? Are there really groups of 13-year olds out there without any innocence left? I couldn't shake these questions from my brain for the next couple of days. All of a sudden I felt a wave of protectiveness for my younger sister, and I wanted to rush home to make sure she was in front of the TV having a slumber party, not out snorting coke with her friends. Kids was such a strong movie that I couldn't just walk away detached from it at the end. It had seeped into my thoughts, carrying me from the seat of the passive viewer into the reality of the characters on the screen.

While Stand by Me had so powerfully created one vision of youth for me, Kids had just as forcefully wiped it away, leaving a contrasting one in its place. Hollywood robbed the vision it had created for me. Quite clearly, American cinema has the ability to ingrain itself into our psyches, to influence the way we think and to probe at our emotions. If the progress of society could change movies so much, then to what extent can movies affect society? It must happen to some degree, for there are probably slumber parties out there watching Kids as a group, accepting it as their perception of youth. That is the power of film. I will still always be able to sing the lyrics of "Stand by Me" with my friends, but the words won't necessarily have the same meaning as before.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No, I won't be afraid
No, I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand
Stand by me

So darling, darling,
Stand by me,
Oh, stand by me
Oh, stand,
Stand by me
Stand by me

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountains should crumble in the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry,
No, I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand
Stand by me
--Ben E. King, "Stand by Me"

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