It is one of the smartest, charming, and funniest films to come out this year while still managing to fit in a shapeshifting clown that lives in the sewer. Some of it fails to materialize or mature by the end, but those rare bits sit in contrast with insight on the true horror of the film: real life. If a tad familiar, It is a striking collection of the Rockwellian smashing up against the simple act of growing up.
We won’t bring up much of the past miniseries or the book because this movie stands perfectly fine on its own, but it does skew close to the source material in terms of foundation. Set over the course of a year between 1988 and 1989, it starts with seven-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) chasing a paper boat his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) gave him as rushing storm waters wash it down the street. And if you’ve seen the trailers, you know what happens next.
Either way, it only marks the beginning of a year of terror for the sleepy little town of Derry, Maine. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a subterranean clown with the most distinctly disturbing set of wayward glowing eyeballs, is abducting children, which is bad news for pretty much everyone at Derry High School but especially a group of ragtag friends led by Bill and his Georgie-shaped albatross. It becomes apparent, however, that it is on them to take on this nightmare themselves.
I’m always reminded, though, of The Office when talking about all the other non-supernatural parts of the movie: Erin loves the beginnings of horror films when it’s all happy families and friends. That’s because for the most part, this is far closer to a human drama than an outright spookfest. Bill and his friends are all dealing with their own personal strife that simultaneously manifests in Pennywise’s fabricated scares and outshines anything the soggy jester could conjure.
Beverly (Sophia Lillis), for instance, is the subject of unfettered bullying and teasing in the school as a consequence of rumors flying about regarding her sexual escapades, and true or not, those rumors are far from the real reason they hit her so hard. Her father (Stephen Bogaert) is a horribly unhinged man that has pointed her life far in a different direction than school drama.
The same goes for Michael (Chosen Jacobs), seemingly the only non-white kid in the entire town, who was tragically orphaned and now lives his grandfather. Or take a look at Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid at school perpetually being bullied by the local psychopath Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his greasy lackeys. Hell, even Henry has a backstory that will make you feel for some part of his development into the classically/overtly evil school bully.
Much of the success of these many different micronarratives weaving so deftly together can be attributed to screenwriter Cary Fukunaga and the keen eye of director Andy Muschietti, but it really is all in the hands of the superb young performers. They add unexpected layers and greatly appreciated gravitas to these real and relatable struggles, never feeling grating or placebic in the way many child actors can. Lieberher as Bill is especially noteworthy, his forceful grip on the lid of his tragedy capping a simmering pot of emotion that boils over at the right times.
But Finn Wolfhard as Richie is the best example of how it all blends together. Richie is a talker, and that’s just about all we know about him. It’s kind of a shame since he’s one of the few underdeveloped characters, but his incessant trash talking also tells us he thinks he needs to be the center of attention. And a lot of his mouthing off is terrifically entertaining (including one of the biggest laughs I’ve heard in the theatre this year), but Fukunaga also knew when to dial it back and let him get regular comeuppance or let his quips die right on the spot with perfect timing. Rather than exacerbating, Richie is endearing.
There are also a few neat tricks that Muschietti employs throughout the film that perhaps only horror fans or cinema students would appreciate. A great example is the Dutch angle. It’s introduced in such a ham-fisted way that you can’t really miss it, and it sets the expectation for when you see it the rest of the movie. (Expectations are something Muschietti loves to play with throughout the film, starting with the very first scene with Georgie.) But then it has an incredible payoff by the end that is both hilarious and sweat-inducing.
It does suffer, however, a bit from scare fatigue. This movie is never quite scary in the way you’d associate with most horror films; it’s more scary in the way classic Spielberg movies are suspenseful—intense, really. You’ll find yourself barely remembering to breath early on, but as the terror gives way to personal and localized drama (with a terrific race to the finish), the suspense keeps coming but with diminishing returns.
Skarsgård, though, doesn’t ever stop being an exemplary Pennywise. A genuinely handsome fellow, sure, but with the proper menace and makeup applied, there is just enough about his visage that is alien that even standing there—not moving a single muscle—is unsettling. He brings a youthful buoyancy to the legendary character that is somehow both welcome and something I’d like to never see again.
It feels odd to gloss over such an integral part of the story, but it’s also appropriate. It will undoubtedly suffer from the Stranger Things Effect (wherein everyone will compare anything that features kids riding bikes around a small town to Stranger Things), but that nostalgic lens is a disservice to the very modern scope with which the movie aims.
The idea that ignorance is ubiquitous is not an unfamiliar one in these recent years. Let alone the anti-vaxxers and the flat-Earthers, but the willful ignorance of obstacles to social progress regarding racism and the LGBTQ community takes a strong metaphorical presence in this story. In this entire town (and, apparently, the entire country), only this diminutive club of self-professed losers are willing to stop ignoring the problem of disappearing children and do something about it.
Simple and superficial bandages like curfews do nothing but quell an agitated public. But this children, equipped with nothing but awareness and a willingness, take on the monster that lives in the sewers. It’s a pointed and somewhat on-the-nose jab that ultimately brings about one of the most satisfying and cathartic conclusions of the year. (It is odd, though, that with a commendable finger on a wavering pulse, they chose to nerf the only colored thread in the tapestry.)
To that end, this is perhaps spiritually one of the best Stephen King adaptations. As opposed to the simple extraction of guns and demons in The Dark Tower, this is a movie that happens to be scary with the ultimate goal of being optimistic amidst the systematic drowning of our heroes. Its ending has more in common with something like Everybody Wants Some than The Conjuring, and that’s how it should be.
It’s a shame that the stigma of what a horror movie otherwise is, though, will push many viewers out of the arms of It. This Losers Club is a circle of sweet, broken angels, and that clown is a vehicle for them to fix the town and fix themselves. It isn’t a movie that will change lives, but it is a beautiful and endlessly charming film that both thrives in and fights against what horror should be. Summon up the courage if you can and get out to see It.
Final Score: 9 out of 10