IT (*****) is a triumph of skill and understanding

IT-2017-Movie-Poster

IT – 2017

Director Andy Muschietti
Screenplay by  Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman based on the novel by Stephen King
Starring  Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Owen Teague

There is a sweet moment midway through IT when the still forming “Losers” take a dive into a quarry for an afternoon swim. There is only one girl, Beverly (Lillis) in the group. She has a crush forming with Bill (Lieberher). Meanwhile, the chubby, thoughtful Ben (Taylor) has unrequited feelings for Beverly. Everyone is treading water with their heads halfway above the surface. Beverly’s innocently beautiful stare hits a slightly aloof Bill. Just to the side, the camera pans to Ben, who stares even more beautifully and innocently at Beverly. The kids are too young in 1989 to have anything but love to put out towards each other, even if the world has shown them some amount of brutality. As important, its obvious that the person holding the camera loves these kids, and what they represent to everyone experiencing this film. This is the point that won me over in IT.

The people who worked on IT, in every version of this film on its path to theaters understand the importance of the fact that all of the film’s viewers were all young at one point. To say that they understand the power of Stephen King’s ability to write about youth at least as well as Rob Reiner (Stand By Me) is cutting short how well they nailed this feeling. It’s amazing that they were able to stitch together a cohesive story, much less one of the best in a great year for movies.

Having watched the mini-series last weekend in preparation, my expectations were minimal. The first attempt at the story feels like agony when Tim Curry is not onscreen. The acting for the kids half of the story is passable, but the adult characters are some kind of torture. To be fair, even the source material feels this way. King’s kids have always felt more relatable than his grown up characters. Thankfully, the filmmakers gave themselves the gift of being able to establish the story with these stronger characters as we don’t get a whiff of the adults in the second half of the novel.

Even more, the story is streamlined to maximize the effectiveness on what it is preying on the children. IT is much better defined on its own terms. The effect is helped by making more subtle, realistic and separate the effect of the adults on their kids in the town of Derry, Maine.

For the few out there who don’t know, IT is represented most often in the guise of a clown, named Pennywise. Pennywise is not IT’s only form. There are changes from child to child, depending on what it is that makes them the most scared. Fear is an important factor in the disappearing of the children in this town, as we discover in the abduction and death of George Denbrough. He’s definitely dead, but he’s lured towards that gruesome end in such a deliberate way as to infer there’s something larger going on. George’s brother, Bill, has the same idea. In the months following his brother’s death, Bill has done some investigating. He knows something bigger is going on, as more and more kids are disappearing.

As school lets out and summer begins, he comes across more kids who have had similar but not identical experiences. These kids are given abbreviated backstories, but each of the most important aspects are covered. The Bowers gang works as a brutally scary force to push them together in an organic way. As their bond forms, they share their fears and begin to investigate them.

The acting for each of the kids is pretty much spot on. Lieberher has a sensitive nature that absorbs feeling and pushes it back out into the world in the form of empathy. Lillis carries the lonely role of idealized young girl with a grace and bravery worthy of the character. Given that she is almost an exact miniature of Amy Adams, she has the skill to match that belies her age.

As Ben, Taylor gives the sweetest performance. His moments resonate with anyone who didn’t look the way they wanted to as a child, but found a way to push forward through the disappointment. Wolfhard is excellent at showing the natural comic ability (note, I didn’t say “chops”) of Richie Tozier. The character is head and shoulders above the novelization. His is a face we’re seeing a lot of lately. And with the incredible Stranger Things about to embark on its second season, we’re bound to see him a lot more.

As Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Skarsgård succeeds in wresting the mantel of most effectively creepy clown away from Curry. At the very least, it’s a draw. He is a full-fledged, cohesive character with actual motives and a consistency that the nature of the mini-series did not allow the first time. There is a tricky, sweet cajoling that he employs that is effective as it is creepy. His clown draws you in before pouncing. There is a chance that his Pennywise could trick me, while there’s no way in hell I would give Curry’s the time of day. I don’t ever think I will hear the word “popcorn” the same way again.

Most of the film’s success I have to give to the collaboration of Muschietti and the writers Palmer, Fukunaga and Dauberman. It’s no accident that the feelings of winsome and terrible youth ring true. Each of the contributors have a track record that shows they have the ability to create authentic characters that possess authentic emotions. This helps when it comes to scaring the hell out of someone. You need to feel like there are real people to ever get a sense that the stakes are real.

The camera work is ethereal, even for standard shots. The chase scene with Ben is given a grandeur and desperation that would be absent were it not for the overhead shot of his running down the river in sheer terror. You can’t see his face, but the scenery threatens to reveal him to his pursuers. Terror like this is unexpected in a typical film.

This is definitely in the top 10 of Stephen King stories put in front of a camera. It may even be top 5. Stand By Me, Misery, Shawshank Redemption and maybe Dolores Claiborne are better than this. Some may argue The Shining, but not even King likes the Kubrick version that much.

The people making this movie love the art of making film. There is no ham handed jokes that play out awkwardly. Even if some of the scares are telegraphed, some very important ones take you unaware. This is a movie for people who don’t require spoon-feeding. A prominent example happens when Eddie (Grazer) has his cast signed by one of his schoolmates who is not exactly a friend. The joke doesn’t materialize until several minutes later, wordlessly, as the rest of his friends discuss something entirely different.

This should be on everyone’s list of top films, even in this banner year for movies. IT is a triumph of skill and understanding what it is to move human beings.

(***** out of *****)

 

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