IT terrifies both as a portrait of the pains of childhood and as a movie where a clown jumps out at you

Summary: The town of Derry has a secret. Every 27 years, a great evil strikes, a tragedy happens. In 1988, children begin disappearing, including young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). His brother, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), begins to pursue Georgie’s disappearance which leads him and his friends into a collision course with the great evils of Derry, all embodied in Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a monstrous clown who can embody the personal demons of the children.

There’s something powerful about seeing great depictions of childhood on screen, something eternally evocative. The memories may be fuzzy, but the feelings burn as strong as ever. The joy of leaving school. The exhilaration of playing with your friends. The sadness at that parent fight you overheard. The anger at the bully. The pangs of first love. The terror as an ageless clown monster opens his gaping maw and tries to eat your flesh in his murder dungeon.

Okay, so director Andy Muschietti’s IT may have a few childhood events that may have never happened to you.

But that absolutely doesn’t take away from the heart of what works about the latest Stephen King adaptation. Perhaps as much (some would say more, but I am not some) a character study of the children its about as a shock-and-awe supernatural movie, IT takes an incredibly strong central cast and a steady hand at the camera to craft a story as much about the fears and traumas of youth as it is about the terror of the unknown stalking monster.

Adapted from what is likely the ur-Stephen King text, IT takes the liberty of adjusting the timeline, now putting the child Loser’s Club and their battle against Pennywise in the unsettling town of Derry, Maine in the late 80s.

I will say it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. As evocative as the time period is aesthetically, IT does little to place its children within a cultural sense of the 80s, a sense of losing themselves to a fracturing and greedy culture. King’s work evokes the 50s very specifically, and outside of a few music cues and posters, this Derry loses that place in time.

Maybe I’m chastising the film for something it isn’t trying to do. For Muschietti, Derry isn’t about its place, but rather what it is. For this IT, Derry is reflection of the evil that inhabits it and what it does to those who succumb. You get the feeling that at any time, the grotesque adults who inhabit the town could turn into some horrifying monster…or maybe they already are. The leering pharmacist, the abusive father, the program on the television that seems to speak directly to you. All of these things create a world that makes it hard to understand and makes it even harder to feel safe.

You know, like being a kid. You never understand why anyone is the way they are, you’re at the mercy of powerful people and stronger people who choose not to use their power in your favor or even choose to use it to harm you.

What perhaps works better about IT than anything else is how accurate a portrait it is of being a child. Of that sense of adventure, that sense of mystery, and that sense of how terrifying the world around you is. Of how important your friends are to you and how they can mean everything when the world is hostile to you. The movie brings you back to those primal feelings of childhood, ones you maybe didn’t have a name for.

It also helps that the movie has an extraordinary child cast. It’s rare to cast one kid that works well in a movie, it’s a bonafide miracle to make a whole cast work. Enough ink has already spilled on them, but I must emphasize how extraordinary Jaeden Liberher (Bill) and Sophia Lillis (Beverly) are. Both give legitimately strong performances that transcend “for a kid.” Liberher plays the obsessiveness and pain of someone who can’t get over a loss so well and Lillis is a powerhouse performer, a surprise who manages to do so much with just a look or a moment where she says nothing at all.

There’s plenty of praise to spread around though. Finn Wolfhard (the most “experienced” member of the cast in this mode, coming off Stranger Things) as Richie manages to thread the needle between totally likeable and impossibly irritating (he also definitely gets the movie’s best applause line). Jeremy Ray Taylor does really sweet work as Ben and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie plays through one of the film’s best character arcs.

You don’t want to just hear about the kids though. The big question looming over this work: How’s Pennywise? Tim Curry’s take on Stephen King’s most iconic monster (don’t @ me) is legendary and so I’m happy to report that Skarsgard really does avoid trying to echo or copy it and instead carves his own take on the character. Curry played his Pennywise all too human, something like John Wayne Gacy or Dahmer, the mocking charm giving way to monster only at the last second.

Skargard chooses to play on the Lovecraftian undertones of the character and makes Pennywise, for lack of a better term,a thing that should not be. His Pennywise is very much a thing that pretends to be human. His eyes drifting away from each other, his movements distorting the very reality around him, his body a twisted tangle barely kept together for appearances. Some dodgy CGI and a bit of overdesign play a role, but there’s even something deeply disturbing about those moments too, when his jaw unhinges to reveal rows of teeth that seem to briefly distort reality.

Is it scary? I’m not the best to ask here, but I certainly thought so. Of course the movie rests mostly on jump scares for its most direct moments, getting a couple of truly effective ones in. But there’s a dread, a paranoia that sets in throughout the film that adds a layer of terror. At any time the monster can appear, it could be anyone or anything. We can never quite trust our eyes, Pennywise seems to make it a mission to challenge our perception.

A film like that requires a lot of confidence behind the camera and the team here is more than up to is challenge. I’ve thrown enough praise to Muschietti’s vision that I need to throw praise behind his collaborators. Writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (originally intended to direct), and Gary Dauberman do a fine job of pulling King’s vision into coherent cinema, a surprisingly rare and difficult achievement. Benjamin Wallfisch crafts a beautiful score that infuses a little mysticism and wonder into the terrifying proceedings. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (famous for his work on Oldboy) gives the camera a distorted and constantly moving look at its world that befits a paranoid air and gives Derry and its residents and its underworld a perfectly grimy and shadowy sheen.

IT is the kind of film that is a collective experience, the kind of film that everyone’s gonna see and everyone will see themselves in. Terror and tragedy all told in the time that everyone’s gone through.

Grade: A-