To be incredibly pithy, you can call this Stand By IT or Nightmare on Goonies Street and find yourself in the neighborhood of what this movie is. I do not mean either of those descriptions as negatives, far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed and found its insistence on placing its tonal and emotional emphasis much harder on the ways childhood is made up of scars that last with us into the future and not on the scares was smart.
One of the most enjoyable things about this film is how the ensemble of young actors, uniformly strong and tasked with some tricky material to play, makes us believe in their friendship, root and care for them as a both a group and individuals. Any adaptation of IT lives or dies on its ability to make us invest emotional with these kids, and any weak-link would cause the entire thing to topple under its own weight.
Granted, there’s a major problem of underserving two of the kids from a narrative standpoint, but don’t fault the actors for that. The part that makes me squeamish about their relative lack of narrative import is the fact that they’re the Jewish and black kids. A large part of me wants to believe this merely a coincidence, but it becomes noticeable the further the film goes on (and it does go on at 2 hours and 15 minutes) that these two are not as developed or important to the narrative/group as the rest. Still, Chosen Jacobs and Wyatt Oleff are just as strong as the rest of the Losers Club.
That leaves us with the rest of the Losers Club to more intimately get to know and spend time with. Chief among them is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the older brother of Georgie, Pennywise’s first victim. Lieberher is fantastic as he navigates his character’s profound guilt and uses it as the driving force to investigate what was going on and make it all right. It makes a scene where Pennywise taunts him using Georgie as a marionette that decays and screams “you’ll float too” in a manner that transforms from playful to threatening to a call from the bellows of hell all the more disturbing and heartbreaking.
If Bill’s one of the primary forces pushing the group, then Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is the other. While IT doesn’t go into depth about her shame over being poor, it is indirectly hinted at, it does go deep into the abuse inflicted upon her and the ugly rumors that surround her. Lillis may be the best of the group, possibly even toppling Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise, and I hope this launches her into a very long career. Her major scare scene involving a bathroom sink vomiting up blood ends with her delivering a frantic, teary-eyed panic attack that lingers with you for its desperation.
The other three kids act as a chorus of wisecracking jokes (Finn Wolfhard’s Richie) or much-needed voices of caution (Jack Grazer’s Eddie) or expositional dumps (Jeremy Ray Taylor’s Ben). Primarily knowing Wolfhard as the “Bill” of Stranger Things, it’s a nice change of pace to see him dropping a mountain of f-bombs and dick jokes at a rapid clip. While Taylor’s Ben offers the movie a wounded soul that refuses to wilt in the faces of adversity or loneliness, and Grazer’s Eddie is a shrieking neurotic that gets a lot of laughs out of his miniature Woody Allen shtick.
I’ve described a lot of humor and heart in the movie, and it’s true, IT possess a lot of scenes where we watch these kids try to navigate growing up and the battle scars that we get while doing it. They are inevitably alone in this process, and it doesn’t help matters that they’re being stalked by a killer demonic shape-shifter. The removal of the adulthood sections doesn’t bother me as we must see where these battle scars come from before we reflect upon them. When the inevitable IT: Chapter Two is released, I hope that watching the films back-to-back will be in conversation with each other.
Of course we have to talk about the clown. Pennywise is an otherworldly entity that is a predator that gets tremendous joy from his cruelty and the hunt. In a scene with Eddie he taunts him, ramping up his fear and anxiety, and mentions that he loves doing this because the fear sweetens the meat. Bill Skarsgård is unrecognizable under layers of makeup, but he invests little choices into his character that only underscore just how strange and foreign this creature is. While Tim Curry’s Pennywise is justifiably well-liked and remembered from that godawful miniseries, he played his version with a touch of humanity that Skarsgård forsakes. They’re both valid readings on the character, but something about Skarsgård’s primordial hunter creeped me out that much more.
For all of its strengths, of which there are many, eventually the length and a sense of artificiality about the special-effects work begin to wear and tear. The length is punishing and IT cannot sustain its sense of dread, suspense, or terror for all of that time. The reoccurring scares begin to feel repetitive and routine. We know that Pennywise will divide-and-conquer the Losers, make them face their worst fears, or generally pop out of nowhere to scare the hell out of us/them. There are still plenty of disturbing sequences that work incredibly well, but certain ones deflate when they should pop. Although a scene of Jacobs’ Mike getting bullied only to catch a glimpse of Pennywise chewing on a child’s arm and wave maniacally with it is a small touch that stands out for its normalcy and lack of attention drawn to the moment. IT needed a few more moments like this.
IT ends with the blood pact of the Losers and an obvious open door for the sequel. I look forward to it. While this version of IT is not a perfect film, it is still a great one that I enjoyed immensely. I put the miniseries to shame, and it feels like Stephen King at his best. I’m not about to proclaim it as standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the original Carrie or The Shining, but goddamn is it close. Maybe when we get the second half and we can view both films as one united work my opinion may change. Hell, another viewing of just this film may only strengthen my appreciation for this film as it stands. IT is just so damn good.