Films about young friendship are often tinged with nostalgia. There is a palpable sense that the filmmakers are looking back, idealistically or critically, at how things used to be, or even projecting how they wished things were. As an art form, movies have the ability to vitalise entire relationships that are completely lost to time. But, with this new-found immediacy, there is also scrutiny – we are able to notice flaws and imperfections in our own friendships that we neglected to observe when wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Young people are constantly changing. For the first couple of decades of life, they are buffeted from one institution to another, desperately trying to find a sense of being and not to make too many mistakes in the process. Three films capture this turbulence perfectly, balancing a venture into uncharted territory with a distanced position of nuanced reflection. Stand by Me (1986), The Social Network (2010), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) may not have much in common in genre, tone or style – but at their heart is a focused investigation of the burning vibrancy of young friendships, as well as the pitfalls of youth.

In The Social Network and Stand by Me, the act of looking back in hindsight at the past is woven into the film itself. Both examples depict a group of youths united in contempt for elder authority, but by also framing them reflecting on past events when older and wiser, we see our characters confronting how limited their juvenile perspective was.

This confrontation is obvious in The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is embroiled in two lawsuits pouring over the legal mistakes he made establishing Facebook. Director David Fincher cuts from energetic, frenetic scenes of coding and business meetings to the courtroom’s cold, clinical dissection of Mark’s toxicity. His best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) spends most of his deposition speaking to his lawyer, and the moments where he speaks directly to Mark feel charged with pain. “I was your only friend,” he tells him. “You had one friend.” Mark and Eduardo built their business around their friendship, and the deposition scenes give them the opportunity to analyse the conflict that has germinated between them, a conflict that was unknown to the two of them at the time. The distanced, reflective perspective is key to understanding the problems within the friendship.

While Fincher’s lens is overtly critical, Rob Reiner’s in Stand by Me is filtered with nostalgia. A writer (Richard Dreyfuss) narrates the adventure he and his friends experienced when searching for a dead body when they were twelve. His younger self, Gordie (Wil Wheaton), is unaware of the momentous changes that are about to befall him – with middle school about to start, Gordie’s more academic disposition means he will likely lose his close friendship with loveable but notorious troublemaker Chris (River Phoenix). Chris is an almost prophetic character, warning Gordie that their time together is limited, and Gordie resents Chris’ warning that “your friends drag you down.” 

Their journey to recover the body progresses within an excitingly curated narrative, as they walk along the stretches of train tracks, they feel in complete control of their young lives outside of adult supervision. As the narrator comments, “We knew exactly who we were and exactly where we were going.” But Gordie can’t appreciate the poignancy that this might be the last adventure of an innocent childhood, whereas the narrator laments that he didn’t appreciate at the time how special, and transient, his bond was with these friends. The older Gordie, unlike Eduardo, idealises his young friendship, and the narrowed perspective of youth is here seen as a blessing.

The framing in Four Weddings and a Funeral isn’t an analysis of friendships falling apart, but instead marks the five titular events and the pressures that fall on our central characters at each of them. They experience a series of dramatic changes that make them assess where they want their lives to end up. The band of friends, led by Charlie (Hugh Grant), are aged somewhere between their late-20s to mid-40s, but all exist in a state of arrested development, perpetually disorganised and childishly silly. Like the boys in Stand by Me, they know exactly how to irritate and amuse each other. And like a child, Charlie is plagued with an inability to communicate his own feelings succinctly.

Four Weddings is a rom-com, but the romance between Charlie and the quirky American Carrie (Andie Macdowell) is by far the least interesting narrative strand. The core group of friends have such a wonderful, bubbling energy to them that you just want them to stay as they are forever. When the friends trick Charlie into believing he’s late for his own wedding, director Mike Newell frames them all together enjoying coffee and each other’s company. There is a seemingly sensation of knowing among them that this may be the last time they will be together like this. Each of the social events marks great change, and with this change comes the realisation that they might have to grow up.

This is made most obvious in the funeral section, after the eldest friend Gareth (Simon Callow) suddenly dies it is made clear that the youth the characters once took for granted is startlingly vulnerable. Change is forced upon them, and while there is no right way to deal with sudden trauma, in Four Weddings our characters respond with resounding empathy and support for one another. It makes them realise it is probably time to start acting like grown-ups. 

By contrast, in Stand by Me, when the boys come across the dead body they’ve been searching for, it is the first time they’ve been confronted with something deeply troubling. Gordie breaks down crying with the unprocessed grief of losing his older brother, and their return journey home is sombre and silent. By the time they return to the town, they’re conscious that their childhood innocence may have abruptly come to an end, and the foreshadowing of their group parting ways is shown as one by one they return home. “It happens sometimes,” the writer tells us. “Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.” The writer concludes his story by telling us, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” But Four Weddings shows that older friendships are made stronger when forced to acknowledge their maturity, whereas those in Stand by Me dissipate when they are unable to comprehend the enormity of their trauma.

This eclectic collection of films on the surface may seem to have very little in common, but the common theme they share is revealing the evolution of young friendships and of the longing to returning to a simpler time or even criticisms of the bullheadedness of youth. Change underpins each of the narratives; its rapidly shifting nature means we can only appreciate how friendships impacted us when reflecting later in life – but usually by this time these people tend to have disappeared from our lives. These films capture a time where friendships are the most important thing to us, and the process of growing close and drifting apart is all part of a life where hopefully, through reflection, we can reach a day where we better understand ourselves.