Let’s face it…being a kid was kind of boring. Well, at least it was for me, growing up in the late 80′s and early 90′s. I lived in a neighborhood where there was nary a kid to be found, which means I watched a lot of television, rented a lot of movies, and learned about the birds and the bees from HBO’s Real Sex.
But that really isn’t the childhood that sticks out in my head. No, the childhood I remember most fondly didn’t really happen at all. It was filled with characters like Gordie LaChance, Scotty Smalls and Veda Sultenfuss. These were the movies I grew up on, and they shaped my unrealistic idea of what childhood was supposed to be like.
It all came crashing back this past Fourth of July weekend. On Saturday nights at the local “arthouse” theater, they show random midnight movies. This year, the brilliant minds behind this practice decided that the perfect Independence Day movie would be The Sandlot (they played ID4 last year, so that one was out).
And as I ate my complementary hot dog and shot off my complementary firework, I was driven into the perfect mindset to watch the fantasy-filled tale of a group of kids who were looking for a baseball…but found themselves (*wipes single tear away from eye*).
If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor. It’s one of the very few movies out there that really captures the ideas of childhood imagination and exaggeration, but tempers it with genuine emotional moments, character relationships, and humor. It’s really a masterpiece of family entertainment.
Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe I have a warped and unfair perspective on the film, having grown up with it constantly lodged in my VHS player. Every generation, I’d argue, has what I call its “nostalgia” films. Now, this can mean any number of things. I know quite a few people who get nostalgic watching Star Wars or even The Evil Dead, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about movies that are designed from the get-go to make you want to feel nostalgic. They’re often nostalgic in-and-of themselves, told from a forward perspective looking back at life.
The Sandlot most definitely fits into that mold, and it got me thinking. What other movies work on me in the same way? The list is short…but epic.
Let’s start off with the obvious. 1983′s A Christmas Story sets the bar for uniting the most wide set of demographics in feeling nostalgic. While it’s set in the 1940′s, the locale feels slightly timeless and applicable to any of our childhoods. And while it was made in the year of my birth, I still grew up on it due mostly to its status as a cult classic, playing CONSTANTLY (quite literally, these days) at Christmas.
This one, too, has that sense of fantasy, jumping into ridiculous sequences of evil bandits and “soap poisoning.” It also gets that perfect flavor of what it feels like to be a kid, helpless in the world and being pulled in a number of different directions. Its episodic nature make it the perfect representation of childhood, where each segment feels like a slice of life that manages to relate itself to your own experiences without really trying.
Next up is Howard Zieff’s 1991 immortal classic My Girl. Now, I know I’m a boy (took me long enough to figure that one out…just kidding), but there is a universal charm and nostalgia to this story about a pre-teen girl dealing with her father’s newfound girlfriend, her “transition into womanhood,” and the friendships and budding romances that shape us in ways we rarely admit to ourselves.
My Girl has that feeling of first love, summer, and loss all rolled into one nearly-perfect whole. And even though I was just eight years old when it was released, it quickly became a movie I watched constantly in my early adolescence. So when I watch it these days, there’s no line between Veda’s childhood experiences and my own.
Finally we come to the ultimate in childhood coming-of-age nostalgic cinema. And, ironically enough, it’s based on the writings of Stephen King. Stand by Me has the most unexpected premise ever for a touching story about a group of friends learning to find strength and value in their friendships and in each other. The movie is based on King’s story The Body and follows a band of outcast kids as they set off on a weekend camping trip to find the dead body of one of their schoolmates.
And while that premise is important to the movie, it serves more as a bookending metaphor and catalyst than as the macabre centerpiece we’re used to in King stories. Instead, we follow these kids as they deal with societal and familial expectations, and the result is a story that delves deep into the psyche of kid-dom without ever feeling melodramatic. These are, admittedly, experiences that most of us have never gone through, but all of us understand the feelings of loss, fear, and inadequacy that are at the center of Stand by Me. That– and the “Lard Ass” scene–are what will make this movie a universally loved piece of nostalgia cinema for decades to come.
It’s really funny…looking back on these movies, I wonder what they make me nostalgic for. It’s not related to anything physical or tangible. Instead, when I watch these movies I get choked up over the emotions I remember when I would watch them as a kid. These were the films that made me sad, scared, excited, and ponderous…often for the first time. And those emotions, while always strong and meaningful, are most strong and meaningful when you’re young.
Or maybe it’s like Gordy’s experience with the deer in Stand by Me. Something personal that you really can’t explain by putting into words. Isn’t that what nostalgia’s all about, anyway?