Stand By Me (1985)
After the success of Stand By Me, the world sat up and took notice of the young River. A sleeper success, the film hailed its child stars to fame. Directed by Rob Reiner, this film is based on a short Stephen King story entitled The Body, about four friends who escape their reality by looking for a dead body in the woods. The film is an exploration of friendship, of finding oneself and coming to terms with the tragic circumstances that enfolds and unites them. River Phoenix plays Chris Chambers, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks with an unfair reputation. Phoenix gives a magnificent performance as Chris. His performance is emotional, convincing and unforgettable.
Running on Empty (1988)
Phoenix plays 17 year old Danny Pope in family saga about roots, identity and life on the run from government officials. The Pope family had been running from the authorities since the late sixties, when Danny’s parents had set up weapons labs alight in a protest against the Vietnam War. Perhaps it is River’s own unconventional upbringing that helps Phoenix achieve a standout performance as a boy who wants to experience a life of his own and settle. River’s performance is nothing short of compelling, he is by far the emotional centre of the film. River was nominated, quite rightly, for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1989 for this role. Although he did not win, Hollywood and film fans alike, was in awe of this teenage boy’s acting talent.
Perhaps one of Phoenix’s most underrated films, Dogfight is a sweet film, focusing on character development and the complex blossoming relationship between the two leads. Phoenix plays Eddie Birdlace, a tough Marine who meets plain Jane and aspiring poet Rose (played by Lili Taylor). The two leads are perfect as the unlikely couple who fall in love after a night of discovery and romance. Both give subtle performances that allow their characters the emotional depth that is required for the film.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
By far, Idaho is River’s most famous and most controversial film of his career. Directed by Gus Van Sant, River plays Mike Waters, a street hustler, in search of his long lost mother while slowly falling in love with his best friend Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves). This is a heartbreaking tale of a man trying to put the pieces of his family history together, while coping with his unrequited love for his best friend Scott. To add another dimension into the mix, Mike has narcolepsy. Phoenix’s performance is mesmerising and perhaps his best in his all-too-brief career. River throws himself into the role and is utterly believable. Phoenix allows Mike’s vulnerability to shine through and the performance is startlingly convincing.