Boy, Stephen King sure needed this one. Well, maybe not him personally but after the critical and financial failure of The Dark Tower, King fans were outraged and disappointed that he would let something they deemed so weak make its way onto the big screen with his name attached to it. Luckily, King’s newest book-to-film adaptation is a huge hit at the box office (projected to be the biggest September opening of all-time) and has already garnered an 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In the film based on the mini-series based on the novel, several kids notice something strange is a foot when a large number of children start going missing under totally unexplained circumstances. One of those kids in particular, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), has a personal investment as he lost his young brother Georgie to a maniacal clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) the previous year but believes that he is still out there somewhere. Along with his friends Beverly (Sophia Lillis), wise-ass Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), paranoid Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), overweight and bully magnet Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and the son of a farmhand Mike (Chosen Jacobs), they plot to stop whatever entity has taken over the town and attempt to confront “It.”
The first thing I want to say about this film is how rich the writing is for the most part. Despite the film containing a multitude of young characters for the audience to follow and care about, everyone is given enough of a back story and characterization to care about for the duration of its 135-minute runtime. Bill’s story of attempting to find his young brother is obviously the one we connect to the most but we also get a great one surrounding Beverly and her attempt to rise above the ‘slut-shaming’ at the school who must also contend with her father, who may be even creepier than Pennywise at times. Eddie is another one of my favourite backstories as we meet his over-protective mother who keeps him on a steady string of medications which may or may not be more than he actually needs and could also be contributing to his mental state.
Other things that the film deals with really well are issues surrounding bullying and family. In fact, at times the movie feels like a horror version of an old classic like Stand By Me when it comes to the bond that is formed between the kids as well as the bullying subplot of that film. The bullies are also not the typical ‘high school bullies’ that you usually see in these kinds of movies. The leader of the bullies is a mean, nasty sociopath who literally carves his initials into one of his poor, hapless victims at one point without fully stabbing him. As the film progresses, he gets to be an increasingly scary character. In fact, sometimes, much like the sexually abusive father, he also tends to be scarier than Pennywise himself in some key scenes.
The performances are also key in a film like this and there are way too many castmembers to list every single one of them. However, Bill Skarsgard did an excellent job as Pennywise. He does something completely different from Tim Curry and made the character completely his own, which is something I was truly hoping to see from him. Skarsgard is almost childlike in his portrayal of Pennywise, which makes him ultimately that much scarier to watch. The kids are all pretty solid – Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer stuck out the most to me in particular. Jaeden is a great lead, Sophia makes for a rather tough-but-vulnerable sole female character in the motley crew of children, Finn Wolfhard entertains as the foul-mouthed comic relief and Jack Dylan Grazer also has some very funny moments but also hits some impressive dramatic beats for such a young performer.
The film’s true, honest portrayal of these characters and its 1980s setting is such a refreshing welcome as opposed to all these ‘period’ movies where we just hit every decade trope possible in the hopes to create nostalgia. The film takes place in 1988 and if it weren’t for some of the very impressive special effects, I would not have been surprised to see this movie as an actual 1988 release. It looks and feels like the 80s in every way and in fact, sometimes even feels Spielbergian with its style of filmmaking. The characters themselves never feel phony; the kids look and act like real kids. They’re also not politically correct; they cuss, they fight and the bullies do far worse. These are how kids talk and act but a lesser film would have cleaned it all up.
Overall, this was an excellent film and just about the best thing that could have possibly come out of the adaptation of a Stephen King novel. I give it my highest rating and while that may seem overly generous to some, it’s more than well-deserved.
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)