At its very essence, childhood is a sort of spiritual warfare. It's a constant battle between good and evil, hope and despair, and tranquility and chaos.
Stephen King, perhaps moreso than a good majority of contemporary writers, understands and embraces the full spectrum of the childhood experience and the ways in which it envelopes us for the remainder of our days.
It has always stood as a prime example of King's willingness, one might even say compulsion, to craft life, and especially childhood, in a way that defies stereotypes and honors the dark and disturbing wholeness of the experience.
I recently revisited one of my own childhood playgrounds, the kind of run-of-the-mill urban playground one finds in gritty, low-income neighborhoods across the country. It's the kind of playground that has undoubtedly seen countless playground taunts and fights, squeals and joys.
I can't go near the childhood without remembering that one thing I've tried to forget for years, being gang raped by a group of neighborhood boys amused by my physical differences and possessing an almost demented glee as they would pound themselves inside me again and again and again.
It's the kind of life experience that I think most would say fucks you up for life. I suppose it did me, at least on some fundamental level, though my greatest revenge has been becoming some sort of decent human being anyway.
I would revisit that playground again in my childhood, never again experiencing something so catastrophic yet fundamentally a changed human being whose joys and sorrows would become irrevocably intertwined.
It seems like I would feel right at home in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, the setting for It and the setting for everything that is to unfold in this film which, quite honestly, is one of the year's most perverse yet pleasant surprises. In the film's opening, young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is lured into an ill-fated adventure in the sewer by a demonic presence in the guise of a clown who has, it would appear, plagued the town of Derry for hundreds of years. The adults of Derry, it would seem, have become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
It is only when a group of loner boys, collectively known as The Losers' Club, begins to figure things out that it becomes apparent they must take matters into their own hands, along with the school's outcast, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), and fight for their very survival.
The Losers' Club is led by Georgie's brother, a stuttering ball of melancholia called Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) whose grief is practically oozing from the pores of his skin, and includes the bespectacled Richie (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard), the physically weakened Eddie (Jack Grazer), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid. Beverly is kinda/sorta an honorary member, more mature than the boys but that's mostly a survival skill since her pervish father makes no secret of the fact that he likes the way she's developing.
Being marketed fairly strictly as a horror film, it feels almost inevitable that there will be a certain segment of the population unhappy with the final result served up by Andres Muschietti (Mama). Diehard King purists may lament that despite King's own expressed satisfaction with the film that there are key scenes, most notably the novel's closing sequence, that are, mostly out of necessity, set aside in favor of market friendliness. Quite simply, there are times that the movie It is far more timid and restrained than King's rather extraordinary literary work.
Let it go.
Set in the 1980's rather than the book's 1950's, It remains faithful to King's work by bathing itself in authenticity and immersing itself in the soul of King's 1,489-page novel including a second story, that will also be a second film, taking place 27 years after the events that occur in this film. While at times reserved in terms of its horror, It is refreshingly and necessarily an R-rated motion picture that fully lives into that R-rating even if it's destined to disappoint gorehounds and indie horror connoisseurs.
It may be either a cathartic or triggering film for trauma survivors, so clearly drawn is the cohesive line between the demonic presence personified by Pennywise the Clown, played with predatory precision by Bill Skarsgard, and the town's undeniable layer of cyclical evil represented by Bev's father and Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), a knife-wielding sociopath in training who seems to guide the seemingly endless bullying endured by The Losers' Club.
While some of the concerns about the 135-minute It that have surfaced, such as its repetitive jump scares and the lessening fear factor with Pennywise over time, have some legitimacy, Muschietti is far more subtle and effective at drawing these concerns into a direct link with the growing confidence and strength of the young boys in The Losers' Club. With a production budget estimated at around $35 million, Muschietti has crafted a magnificently effective film that intelligently and sentimentally and with surprising humor manages to envelope us into the lives of these youngsters then practically demand that we follow them along over the next couple of hours. While it couldn't possibly capture the fullness of King's novel, Muschietti's It breathes cinematic life into it and is a far better film than a good majority of us, I'd dare say, ever expected.
In fact, if there's one beef I have with the film it would likely be an unsatisfying ending that partly results from the challenge ending the film with one more to go and partly due to the inability to find a way to create the jarringly impactful ending of King's novel, the sexually expressed restoration of The Losers' Club, an absence which creates a spiritual disconnect that simply isn't satisfactorily addressed.
Minor quibbles aside, It is easily one of 2017's most pleasant surprises, especially considering how accustomed we've become to unsatisfying King adaptations. It is a beautifully constructed that soars on the strength of its stellar ensemble cast and production values that are both exhilarating and electrifying. Among the key players, Skarsgard may not erase the memory of Tim Curry's stellar television performance as Pennywise but he bravely charts his own memorable territory. Sophia Lillis is nothing short of remarkable as Beverly, while Finn Wolfhard is an absolute gem as Richie. Chung-hoon Chung's lensing is seamless within the tapestry of the film, while Jason Ballantine's editorial work deserves extra kudos.
While It may not be the instant horror classic that everyone wants it to be, it's a faithful, entertaining and insightful adaptation of Stephen King's source material and a film that beautifully captures the essence of childhood, a spiritual warfare of sorts in which the battle between good and evil is often decided by those who can stay afloat the longest.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic