There’s this little moment in Stand By Me that doesn’t need to be there, at least not to move the plot forward. In a film defined largely by the rowdy banter and camaraderie of a group of twelve-year-old boys, we find Gordie Lachance, our narrator and protagonist, sitting alone while the other guys sleep, reading a comic as the sun creeps over the horizon. Suddenly, a deer enters the frame and pauses a few feet from Gordie. The two briefly stare at one another before the deer moves on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, just the diegetic sounds of birds and the quiet noises that signal the deer’s movements. The whole encounter takes only a few seconds, but it remains one of my favorite scenes in the film.
I love it because it’s about atmosphere more than plot. Stand By Me is one of only a few great films about childhood friendship, and it captures so well the heady magic of spending a late summer day or night on an outdoor adventure. Gordie’s encounter with the deer reminds me of evanescent moments from my own childhood (and adulthood) when something just a little out of the ordinary appeared and bewitched me: a multicolored dragonfly alighting on a branch, bats dancing against a dusky sky, a hummingbird seeming to materialize out of the ether to dance in my general vicinity for a while. Sometimes we’re eager to share these moments in conversation, and sometimes, like Gordie, we’re reluctant to. “That was the one thing I kept to myself,” a grown Gordie tells us in voiceover. “I’ve never spoken or written of it until just now.” That Gordie chooses to disclose this cherished, delicate moment with us, the viewers, increases the film’s sense of intimacy and draws us closer to his character as the climax approaches.
The deer scene gives us a moment to breathe after Gordie’s friend Chris breaks down in tears over a remembered betrayal, and before the boys at last find the dead body they’ve been looking for, forcing themselves to face mortality head-on. Director Rob Reiner cuts from a close-up of Gordie to the deer and then back, highlighting the similarities between the two. Wil Wheaton’s large brown eyes and gentle demeanor in this role make it easy to link his character to the deer, a connection that underscores Gordie’s innocence and vulnerability just before the encounter with the body will lay bare his grief over the death of his older brother, and a faceoff with the town bully will test his courage and resolve. This is a coming of age story, and the deer’s appearance emphasizes how Gordie is forced to grow and change. In a bittersweet and nostalgic film about how time refuses to stand still, this brief scene reminds us of the rare magic moments when it feels like it does.