by Drew Bittner
Basically: In Derry, Maine, there’s a cycle to history. Every 27 years, something awful happens… and in the summer of 1989, that time comes around again.
Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) asks his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) to make him a paper sailboat. Bill does, but cannot go out in the rain with Georgie; he’s sick and has to stay in bed. Georgie takes his boat out… and soon loses it down a sewer grate. Peering inside, he meets a clown (Bill Skarsgard) who offers him his toy boat. He just has to reach out for it.
Georgie is never found.
Neither are a number of kids. Derry has a problem with people going missing, says new kid and perennial victim Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Bill won’t let it go and urges his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kasprak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) to help him search the sewers for Georgie. Along the way they team up with Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis). They are brutalized by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his friends, but they still manage to have some fun (like their trip to a local water-filled quarry).
As they dig into the mystery of the town, they find a horror that repeats itself, but nobody in town seems to notice… or care. Kids are beaten up by bullies and adults drive by; kids are desperate for adult help or kindness and find nothing.
Because there’s something deeply wrong about Derry. And one face of it is Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
As each kid discovers the horrific clown in turn, they realize that there is no way to hide, no way to run. They have to face it, whatever it takes.
This new version of “IT” takes some liberties with Stephen King’s novel, but that’s for the best. Andy Muschietti, working from a script by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and Cary Fukunaga (who was originally set to direct), updates the early portion of the story to 1988 from the 1950s, making the kids more contemporary for a modern audience. He also changes the manifestations of horror that confront the kids, keeping readers of the book guessing. The directorial style is also far more in the vein of contemporary horror, with jump scares a-plenty. Those familiar with the visual language of horror films will know where to expect bad things to happen–and they won’t be wrong–but the way it’s done is still artful.
Bill Skarsgard makes the role of Pennywise his own, creating a persona distinct from the work of Tim Curry in the 1990 TV adaptation. His eyes dart and gleam with feral malice, while he purrs each line, wheedling and whining, until he is ready to pounce. It’s a terrific performance, making every on-screen appearance instantly terrifying. He fits well with an atmosphere Muschietti creates, where the entire town is rotten beneath its sun-drenched surface. Pennywise is everywhere and nowhere, so that each fresh discovery of the hideous clown only adds to the nightmare. The town is rancid with fear, anger and hatred. One striking bit: It’s telling that at no time does a parent tell his or her child “I love you.”
The young actors, called The Losers, in this movie have some real heavy lifting to do. Jaeden Lieberher shoulders the role of Bill, who’s the leader of the group and the one most determined to destroy It. He does a great job managing the highs and lows of this story arc, suffering at the disappearance (and possible return) of Georgie, and struggling with his feelings for Beverly. As Beverly, Sophia Lillis is amazing. Her Beverly is traumatized by a deeply disturbed father (who asks if she’s still “his little girl”) and bullied by the mean girls at school; Miss Lillis makes all of this visceral—an emotional gut-punch—and her encounter with Pennywise is perhaps the most horrifying of all The Losers. Miss Lillis, mark my words, will be a star.
Finn Wolfhard has the distinction of going from Stranger Things (a Stephen King pastiche) to a Stephen King adaptation. He’s engaging, a firehose of crude humor, put-downs and insults that keep things light. He also has the single best line in the movie. Jeremy Ray Taylor invests the chubby, schlubby Ben with deep heart, while Wyatt Oleff deftly delivers a Stan who wears his fear on his sleeve. Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie is a slave to his mother’s overprotective obsession, and his breaking free is exhilarating. And Nicholas Hamilton portrays a Henry Bowers who is every childhood bully rolled into one, filled with raging psychopathy. For a young guy, he delivers the terror and does a terrific job of it.
Did I mention something happens every 27 years? It’s been 27 years since IT was last adapted. Think about that.
In the end: Closing with the words CHAPTER ONE across the logo, this movie is poised to terrify a new generation of kids who didn’t see the earlier movie.