Friday, April 12, 2024

IT’s Pennywise Pales In Comparison to Reality

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Andy Muschietti’s IT is one of the best Stephen King adaptations I’ve ever seen. The reason being is because Muschietti understands the most important thing about King and his work. King is often billed as “The Master of Horror, ” but he’s not. Not really, not in the sense of a Clive Barker or H.P. Lovecraft.

King’s real strength is his mastery of storytelling and his rich characters. IT isn’t a horror movie. It’s more of a monster movie, but even that isn’t really true. The story is actually a coming of age film that explores the real world horror of abuse.

It’s not surprising that the parts of the film that work best are the ones that deal solely with the real world stuff. The monster stuff, the parts dealing with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) come off as silly and not really frightening.

What was frightening, and what was one of the single best things about the film, was how the world viewed Beverly (Sophia Lillis). The lone girl in the all-boy club the Losers, Beverly’s mind and body are developing in a way the rest of the world seems to notice; and she wishes they wouldn’t.

There’s a scene where Beverly runs into the boys at the local pharmacy. They are scrounging for medical supplies to help another friend of theirs Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) who has been hurt by the town bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). In stories like these that take place in small towns such as Derry, there is always a town bully. Like a town drunk or town misanthrope, it is a staple of small town life. I’m not entirely sure if there isn’t something in the town’s charter demanding these things.

While the boys are looking for things to help their friend, Muschietti pans his camera to the next aisle over to see Beverly; alone and scared in front of a wall of tampons. Coming into girlhood can be terrifying, and for Beverly who is taunted by the other girls as a ‘slut’ even though she’s a virgin, it’s a nightmare. Upon stumbling upon the boys, they discover they don’t have enough money for their first aid. So Beverly volunteers as a distraction.

She walks up to the pharmacist Mr. Keene (Joe Bostick) and flirts with him, and he flirts back. The scene is reminiscent of the store scene from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The way Muschietti frames this is deeply unsettling and far more disturbing than anything he throws at us with Pennywise or jump cuts.

Lillis is a star. In a movie about a group of boys who do battle with a demon-esque clown who feeds off their fears, she is the standout. There is an effortlessness to her performance. Lillis has the uncanny ability at such a young age to act without acting.

The cast of IT is quite frankly astounding. I’m not a fan of children in or out of the movies but this cast of child actors is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. There’s an obnoxious, cynical earnestness about them that comes from being an age where nothing makes any real sense.

Bill (Jaeden Liebrher) is the leader of the group. His little brother Georgie (Jason Robert Scott) was an earlier victim of Pennywise’s. Liebrher’s Bill is torn between finding out what happened to Georgie and not wanting to to know. Bill’s refusal to accept Georgie’s death while also taking the blame for it, separates him from the rest of the group.

Perhaps it’s why Beverly is drawn to him. She too blames herself for the abuses she’s suffered. There’s an odd connection between the two as the movie progresses, one that Beverly is aware of but Bill is too blinded by his own turmoil to see. Their connection and how the movie resolves it, is beautiful and simple. It feels natural and unforced.

The other boys Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) are great as well. There’s a wonderful chemistry the group has. The way they talk feels like the way we talked as kids. Or at the very least it feels like the way we remember how we talked. An act in it’s own right that deserves much applause and adulation.

The script by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman doesn’t feel cobbled together. There’s a tightness to the movie that’s rare in a horror film. Muschietti and company understand what so few monster movies do, Pennywise is not the point. However as wonderfully written and and fleshed out these characters are there are some missteps.

Mike, a homeschooled black kid, is prominent in the beginning of the film. Then he inexplicably disappears for a large swath of the film. Now we could excuse this as him being homeschooled and thus he doesn’t hang out with the rest of them. But when they see him getting bullied by the psychotic Henry Bowers they come to his rescue and welcome him into the group.

The problem is during his absence Muschietti has been exploring the boys and Beverly’s budding sexuality.  As well as the impact a young girl has on a group of young boys has. Mike is left out of all of this. Outside of the beginning Mike is only connected to the story because he happens to be bullied. His sexuality and his coming of age are bypassed. As a result he feels the least written and oddly misused part of the troupe.

Now you could argue this will change in the next film or that in the book he did this or that. I don’t care. I’m talking about THIS movie. In THIS movie they treat his character shamefully. The sad part is this is all too common with characters of color; especially in horror films. Which is a shame because I quite liked what little I saw of Jacobs. He had a wonderful vulnerability and reservedness about him that the other kids lacked.

If I remember correctly in the book Mike was the town historian. Well in the movie he’s been stripped of that and it’s been given to Ben. Now Taylor does a marvelous job at what is easily one of the most underrated difficult jobs an actor has, exposition. This kid handles the information dump like a pro.  The scene in his bedroom where he’s simultaneously telling the rest of the Losers, and us, about the history of Derry, while begging Beverly not to expose his giant New Kids On The Block poster is one of my favorite moments of the film.

As to Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise, I was not a fan.  He’s too goofy and not at all scary. Muschietti and his camera man Chung-hoon Chung do their damnedest with lighting and camera placement to make him scary. While they succeed in making a gorgeously shot and edited movie, Skarsgard’s silly talking clown was not part of that success.

Muschietti heaps special effects and sped up footage onto Pennywise and robs him of his terror. There’s never any real danger or threat of danger with his Pennywise. With a couple exceptions of a few well-placed and well-timed jump scares the real terror was inside Beverly’s house.

Don’t misunderstand me I truly enjoyed this movie just not as a horror movie. Although I was sacred at times. When I said this was one of the best adaptations of Stephen King I meant it. This is a well made film, peppered with some flaws, but it is effective nonetheless.

IT understands kids and the havoc puberty can wreak on a child’s body and psyche. As a monster movie it’s fine. However, as just a movie itself, it’s one of the best ones playing in theaters right now. Demonic clowns with dislocated jaws, visions of lepers, and scary paintings are well and terrifying but they pale in comparison to the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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