Stephen King adaptations are in vogue again and you could say the 2017 box office hit “It” was the catalyst. King’s 1986 best-seller was first adapted as a 1990 ABC miniseries. But who could have predicted its more recent big screen iteration would have been such a record-smashing success?
“It” is directed by Andy Muschietti and written in part by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman. It tells the story of a group of kids in Derry, Maine, a small town apparently full of really crappy parents and a mind-boggling amount of ignorance of local history. I guess is has to be that way or otherwise no one would live there and we would have no movie.
The film opens on a really strong note. Set in October 1988, we meet big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) making a paper boat for his little brother Georgie. The younger sibling gleefully splashes out into the rain to play with his boat but loses it down a storm drain. Peering into the hole Georgie sees the face of a clown who introduces himself as Pennywise (a wickedly good Bill Skarsgard). The clown lures his child prey closer and soon Georgie is gone.
Six months pass and a pained Bill still holds out hope that his brother is alive. He recruits his rag-tag band of misfit friends (who affectionately call themselves “The Losers Club”) to help follow some leads. Among the group is the pointlessly crass loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard), a high anxiety germaphobe (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the quiet pragmatist Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). Along the way they are joined by new friends, the sweet and lovably chunky Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), an outgoing tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and a tender-hearted orphan Mike (Chosen Jacobs).
All of these friends have several things in common. They all have crummy home lives (an essential story thread in the novel but too shallowly explored in the film). Each have been terrorized by a local bully (who is wildly overplayed by Nicholas Hamilton). And each have had horrific run-ins with the supernatural shape-shifting Pennywise who we learn feeds on the fears of the local children (and their limbs but I’ll leave that alone).
Muschietti proves to have a good grasp of horror imagery and his set pieces are routinely suspenseful and terrifying. Scene after scene is filled with rich, chilling atmosphere. And while they often play out the same way, each is inspired by the uniquely individual fears of the children. This gives light to the idea that when apart they are vulnerable but together they are strong.
The coming-of-age stuff is much more uneven. To their credit the young cast of friends all do well and there is plenty of good chemistry between them. But it’s brought down by the film’s maddening need to fully invest in lazy potty-mouthed kid tropes and some cringe-worthy bank-and-forths we get as a result. Wolfhard’s Richie is the biggest causality, a comic relief character with some good moments but who is so forcibly pushed into caricature by the filmmakers.
Instead it’s in the quieter and more intimate moments that the kids and their relationships really flourish. For example, there’s a beautiful swimming scene where the crass silliness is dialed back and the kids come together in the most earnest and truest way. These scenes are great and it’s often Lieberher, Lillis, and Taylor who add the most emotional heft. To the film’s credit, it ends strongly with all the kids truly feeling transformed. It’s as if what they have experienced has changed them forever.
Watching “It” brought several other movies to mind, “Stand By Me”, “The Goonies”, even Netflix’s hit series (and all-around better) “Stranger Things”. The film is just as much an evocation of troubled adolescence as it is a horror romp featuring a malevolent clown. Yet it never strikes the right balance despite some effectively eerie sequences and moments of genuine humanity. And it’s obsession for crude juvenile banter and endless wisecracking makes the tone as unpredictable as Pennywise’s next creepy illusion. Still, the cracking visuals, its statements on bullying, marginalization, etc., and Skarsgard’s deliciously menacing performance ultimately save “It” from its flaws.