The new It movie is a visually deft, wildly entertaining, scary, and occasionally even funny version of what’s becoming our collective pop culture urtext. Even as it offers all the visceral thrills you could conceivably ask of it, there’s an inescapable familiarity to it, the unavoidable question of how many more times we need to make this movie. It trades on this need without delving into it, without ever questioning or explaining how many more times we want to see the town nerds and their lady friend — the fetishized redhead — deal with bullies, drive their bikes down to the swimmin’ hole to learn a dark town secret, be transported to the upside down, and kick a proverbial wolfman in the proverbial nards. Hell yeah! Wolfman’s got nards!
It is easy to watch, but it makes it hard not to wonder why this particular form of nostalgia, for tweenage small-town early Spielberg with comically cruel bullies, abusive fathers, and outcasts coming together, is so hard to shake. Will we never outgrow it? And if so, why not? At a certain point, does not the wolfman cease to have nards? Or are we forever doomed to endless variations on this pop culture echo? To live out our entire lives in this snow globe facsimile inside the nard of a wolfman?
At its heart, It is a story about a scary clown who lives in the sewer. That’s an irresistible hook in terms of imagery, but it presents a narrative challenge. Either the clown, who calls himself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), is a real human with some serious issues, who can be killed, or it’s a spirit, something supernatural, a haunting that either needs its spirit put to rest or is something more metaphorical that the characters need to overcome. No matter how much fun the first half of the movie is, in the back of your mind you know the story is eventually going to have to lay its clown cards on the table, and if the clown isn’t a flesh-and-blood human, it’s going to require an elegant storytelling solution to address the fact that intangibles like apparitions or hallucinations aren’t dangerous on their own.
In the meantime though, all we need from the first half is to be shit-scared by the sewer clown. On that score, It delivers. It’s hard to scare and surprise an audience that mostly already knows what’s coming, but director Andy Muschietti (Mama) seems especially fluent in the cinematic language to pull that off, using framing, composition, a solid score, and iconography like yellow rain slickers and a red balloon to build suspense, even when it’s not holding much back. This is not a movie where you don’t see the shark until the third act; the scary clown bites off a kid’s arm in the first scene.
True to its roots, the story is told through the eyes of the town freshmen — Bill the stutterer (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben the fat kid/new kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly the girl (Sophia Lillis), Richie the mouth (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things), Eddie the germophobe (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mike the black kid/home-schooled kid (Chosen Jacobs), and Stanley the Jewish kid (Wyatt Oleff), who’s also kind of a germophobe. Honestly, I’m not sure why Stanley is even here, he’s kind of superfluous.
Needless to say, they’re menaced by a town bully (Henry Bowers*, played by Nicholas Hamilton) who’s an over-the-top sociopath, in this case one so unhinged and violent that you almost wonder whether this story even needs a scary sewer clown. Henry has henchmen, a mullet, a sleeveless shirt, and a stiletto knife, and rides around town in a t-top Trans Am, the clearest expression that It is at least 10% too on the nose. It simply regurgitates these tropes unconsciously, without reflection.
The obvious defense for this seeming derivativeness is “Well it was written in 1986!” Which might be a partial defense of the book, but is not a defense of a movie made in 2017. For the most part, It keeps things admirably grounded in the small-town late ’80s. (Do we seek these out because we miss movies about small town America or because we miss small towns?) But every once in a while a character will do or say something that breaks the spell, like Richie making a crack about Henry’s “mullet.” A mullet wasn’t called a mullet in 1989. It was just called hair. It’s a telling crack in the movie’s facade, a window into its true id (and ours), where we want to watch the same movie over and over again while making fun of its anachronistic fashion sense. We don’t really want to reflect on our childhoods, just make fun of the hair. Later, Richie makes a joke comparing Beverly to Molly Ringwald, which is like, yeah, that is indeed the trope your movie is using, great “joke.”
It’s insanely hard to find enough competent child actors to make a movie with this many kids in it, but the cast is solid, especially the actors playing the main characters (Lieberher, Lillis, Ray, Wolfhard). The talent starts to dilute pretty fast further down (Grazer, Jacobs, Oleff, Hamilton), but how could it not? Kids are not good actors, as a general rule.
Kids, and childhood, seem to be the root of the whole story. A clue to where It falls on the real clown vs. apparition spectrum is the revelation that grown ups can’t see Pennywise, which must make him some kind of metaphor for childhood or adolescent fear. Like a successful pop song, It offers just enough provocative hints at subtext that we can invent our own, but not enough or as coherently as to make us believe that the filmmaker actually knows. It gives us just enough that we can pretend it’s more than a story about a scary sewer clown, though it’s fairly obvious that it isn’t, it’s just the work of a storyteller clever enough to realize that a scary sewer clown story is more effective if the storyteller can create the illusion of subtext.