10:30 am EDT, September 12, 2017

‘It’ movie review: A terrifying coming-of-age story with a big heart

It is certainly not the first movie to unite a coming-of-age story with a horror movie, but it might be the one with the most heart and the scariest clown.

After two of the weakest weekends at the box office this year, the release of the highly anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s novel was just what movie audiences desperately needed.

Directed by Andres Muschietti, It is the type of film that wears its heart on its sleeve, delivering both an earnest story about growing up and a genuinely horrifying tale in equal measure. The trailer and marketing for the film promise plenty of scares, but what you might not expect is the charm and poignancy of a story about youth and companionship.

At a length of more than a 1,200 pages, King’s novel is by no means an easy story to adapt. The book switches back and forth between telling the story of a group of teens and the same group as adults.

Luckily, Muschietti’s film does not try to take on both timelines. Instead, It focuses exclusively on the teens, allowing the film time to develop its characters and the horrors they face.

The first act of the film focuses on introducing the characters to the audience, developing their personalities and, more importantly, their fears.

The characters’ fears are essential to how the film combines the coming-of-age story with the horror genre. It uses horror elements to reflect the characters’ anxieties about growing up and entering adulthood.

The film’s antagonist, Pennywise the Clown, is able to shape-shift into whatever the kids are afraid of. Muschietti centers the first half of the movie on the kids’ encounters with Pennywise, ending each one in terrified screams.

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The effect of these encounters is two-fold. First, it works to develop the characters. In taking this story from page to screen, the characters end up much flatter than they were in the book. By characterizing them through their fears, they are each giving a uniqueness that helps keep them distinct.

Second, these scenes help the movie to establish a narrative about how useless adults are in protecting the kids against Pennywise. Almost all of the encounters with Pennywise start or end with adults showing up, but offering no meaningful protection or guidance to the kids.

The isolated encounters with Pennywise combined with the apathy of the parents in the story drives the kids closer together. It’s from this companionship that the film derives its heart; the universality of the way kids share fears gives the movie a unique and affecting resonance.

But this coming-of-age tale is only part of the movie. It contains two entirely separate yet parallel narratives that Muschietti attempts to conflate as one.

The film attempts to contextualize the coming-of-age story within the framework of a horror film. While the film functions rather well as a heartfelt and impassioned coming-of-age tale, it stumbles in connecting that story to the kids’ fight against Pennywise.

There is such a focus in the film on ensuring characters’ fears are properly articulated that it stumbles when drawing the connection between those fears into the actual horror story.

Pennywise, as a character and entity, is depicted as largely one-dimensional. This ultimately takes away from the film’s ability to build a more sustained tension throughout the story.

Despite the time the film commits to introducing the audience to the different characters, it can’t avoid moments that feel rushed and underwritten. This may simply be an unavoidable consequence of adapting such a hefty story, but it’s clear that the film loses something by attempting to balance so much.

Photo: Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

For example, Eddie’s fear of illness is depicted rather shallowly through his encounters with a terrifying, disease-afflicted man. On the other hand, and arguably worse, is Mike’s characterization. His entire backstory about his parents’ death is tacked on like a footnote and the racial elements of the original story are completely omitted.

Beverly suffers from this as well; the film never really manages to draw a distinct connection between her encounter with Pennywise that ends with an explosion of blood in her bathroom to her fear of sexual abuse at the hands of her father.

This is not to say that It doesn’t deliver the kind of scares that audiences crave. The box office numbers alone speak volumes. It broke records last weekend, making a record $117 million — the largest debut for a horror film ever.

There’s no denying that It contains a variety of successful scares, but upon leaving the theater, it’s increasingly clear how textbook those scares really are. It rarely pushes itself outside the comfort zone it establishes in the first act of the film, repeating the same elements in different settings until it reaches the climax.

But even with these weaknesses, It succeeds through the grace of its portrayal of friendship and the endless empathy it has for youth. The horror elements flourish because the movie makes the audience care about the characters, even those that are underwritten. The moments where the group comes together to stand up and protect one another are quite affecting and help to raise the stakes of the horror elements.

Ultimately, it’s okay that some of the characters are underwritten because the film makes a choice to be less about the individual arcs of the characters and more about their union in the face of a universal struggle.

This is why the scenes with the kids bicycling down a street or swimming together in a reservoir feel so moving. The movie is, first and foremost, about companionship. So while it may struggle to develop well-rounded characters, it succeeds in capturing that indeterminate feeling of youth, where it seems the whole world is against you except the friends at your side.

In the movie’s final scene, the kids make a blood oath to return to the town if Pennywise ever returns. Like so much of the film, a sort of artificial danger looms heavily over them, but their companionship, empathy for one another, and earnest belief in the threat posed by Pennywise gives the film the kind of heart it needs to balance the demands of a coming-of-age story.

Grade: B

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