80s nostalgia, coming-of-age drama, and the perils of coulrophobia all collide in Andy Muschietti’s fun, frilly adaptation of half of Stephen King’s epic novel It. Published in the 80s and partially set in the 50s, this version bumps the timeline up 30 years so that the first part of the story involving a group of kids facing off against a killer clown is now set at the end of a decade when arcades were all the rage and town bullies wore mullets.
It's an understandable timeline adjustment (the 27-years-later-set sequel will then take place pretty close to our current era) that draws an appropriate spiritual connection to Rob Reiner’s beloved coming-of-age template feature Stand by Me, itself a Stephen King adaptation made in the 80s about the 50s. It’s not hard to imagine that Muschietti drew plenty of inspiration from Reiner’s movie, since both flicks ooze a nostalgic appreciation for the period that their adult filmmakers recall so fondly.
Obviously, Stand by Me didn’t have any killer clowns (just a single dead body instead), which then aligns It with other 80s fright flicks about kids battling a killer, be it a Jason or a Freddy or the whole rogue’s gallery of the original Universal Monsters run. The inspirations and influences are so infectiously ingrained in the overall package that they’re hard to separate from the current product. Muschietti uses this to his advantage, building on the familiar to create a cozy sense of comfort that he then corrupts with creepy imagery.
The result is a very enjoyable ride enlivened by a solid cast of kid actors that convincingly sell their mix of onscreen friendship and fear. These are the two key elements of the movie, fulfilling the requirements of both genre affiliations. The coming of age aspect of the story is bound by the connection between these playfully bickering buddies and the horror is focused on not only what scares them, but also how they can empower themselves by conquering these personal fears.
Each young character has something that makes their skin crawl even before they become aware that a toothy clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, relishing every moment in the iconic role) is after them. These individual fears become an effective shorthand for characterization, developing slivers of backstory that define each kid in clear, concise fashion.
There’s Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), son of the local rabbi, feeling the pressures of his upcoming bar mitzvah, and terrified of an admittedly eerie painting hung on the walls of his dad’s office. And there’s Mike (Chosen Jacobs), haunted by the memory of his parents perishing in a fire and now living with his gruff grandfather. There’s also Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose mother has invented a host of medical issues for her son, causing him to carry around fanny packs packed with pills everywhere.
It’s a bad time to be a parent, apparently, since you’re either uncaring, evil, or dead, but hey, this is what happens when Stephen King tells a story about children. There has to be plenty of nastiness to go around and leaving it all to one monstrous clown seems a little unfair.
The two most important characters in the story, as deemed by amount of screen time and the complexity of their arcs, are Beverly (Sophia Lillis), an unpopular girl with a bad reputation at school that can be tragically traced back to her sexually abusive father, and Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) meets a terrible end during a Pennywise-promoting prologue. Bill’s parents are the only living ones that aren’t treated as awful and their reward is a dead child.
It’s a cruel world that these people inhabit, but Muschietti uses this depressing perversion of family values to imbue the young characters with an intriguing, impressive dose of courage that aids them in their efforts to end Pennywise’s campaign of horror. These are kids that have been made to fear their own homes for a variety of reasons and this sense of emotional displacement becomes a touching requiem for innocence lost while highlighting how the loss of innocence is not a byproduct of Pennywise’s horrific actions, but rather the weapon they need to defeat him.
This becomes the clever, effective intersection at which the movie’s two genres meet. The coming-of-age elements of the story are now thematically intertwined with the horror elements and this is a significant reason that the movie is as crowd-pleasingly enjoyable as it is, because Muschietti recognizes the connection and seizes it.
Another reason the movie succeeds is its generally comforting sense of place. The fictional Maine town of Derry feels fully realized, a beautiful backdrop of classically American geography and warmly inviting Main Street-style kitsch against which Muschietti can juxtapose a tale of terror. Derry is clearly a terrible place to grow up, since chances of having bad parents and falling somewhere in the once-every-27-years window when Pennywise pops up to make dinner of the town’s kids are pretty good, but Muschietti still manages to make it both a believable and oddly pleasant place to cinematically visit.
Tapping into that nostalgic nerve that holds 80s iconography in such high regard (see also Netflix’s delightful Stranger Things series, which shares a cast member in Finn Wolfhard) is a major aim for Muschietti and the town itself contributes greatly to this effort. There’s no denying that the movie is familiar by design, but familiarity can be sweetly refreshing when it serves a fair purpose.
Here, the pic is an adoring homage to beloved movies about kids on adventures and it provides each child character with enough meaning and motivation that the homage doesn’t feel merely recycled. There’s also an energy and enthusiasm that filters down through Muschietti and his floating camera to the entire young cast. Well-timed flickers of humour further exploit the nostalgia in entertaining ways. Current pop culture loves the 80s and It suggests that the feeling is mutual.