Fear as a coming-of-age tool in “It”

Visual-media of the eighties seems to have a stranglehold on coming-of-age pre-teen films, don’t they? For some reason, when I think of filmic metaphors for coming-of-age my mind immediately wanders to visions of children on bikes, emotive film scores, and the pre-internet age. There’s something particularly eighties about the genre that always stands out. It’s likely part of the reason that the producers of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” were drawn to the aesthetic. “Stand By Me,” another Stephen King adaptation, understood and this new adaptation of King’s “It” seems to follow on that eighties revival in effective ways. The thing is, though, as much as the eighties seems to represent American fiction on screen and its relationship with coming-of-age, horror does not immediately appear as a genre to which childhood development is ascribed. It’s usually comedic (see any John Hughes film), and fantastical (see Spielberg’s “E.T.”). And that makes sense. The awkward meanderings of the subspace between childhood and adulthood with its bathetic fervour and its looseness fits the unformed nature of (eighties) comedy. And childhood as something we must grow out of has its fantasy roots. Watching “It,” though, the idea of using horror as a genre worthy of grounding the profundity of adolescent maturity is compelling.

And, yes, all this amidst a film where there’s a dancing Victorian-era clown.

The protagonists of the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s “It,” which is an unlikely coming-of-age vehicle

“It,” in its presentation of a cursed town, Derry, Maine, loomed over by that clown, presents itself firmly as the story of a coming-of-age. The eponymous “It” (a.k.a Pennywise) is not merely a curse and not merely a clown but a shapeshifting savant who takes on the guise of everything which brings fear to our band of protagonists. The feat that runs throughout them differs from character to character. At first, their fears seem disparate but as the film builds to its climax, the septet of growing children learn to adapt to a world that is arbitrary, dangerous and terrifying and they soon find there is little solace to be found in adulthood. Instead, adulthood, and things that come with it, present the most visceral symbols of fear throughout.

“It” concerns, unsurprisingly, a hodgepodge of misfits. The closest thing to a protagonist we have is Jaeden Lieberher’s Bill, a generally straightforward preteen who opens the film with an unnamed illness. (He’s been vomiting blood.) The only thing that gives the generally congenial Bill loser status is his stutter, and he is the victim of the film’s earliest tragedy when his younger brother is abducted by a clown who lives in a sewer. This is less than ten minutes into the film. “It” does not hide its horrors under a bushel, but presents them immediately. The early attack signals a film that’s all horror, but it’s not. This initial scare gives way to a first act that is interested more in childhood solidarity than the expected jump-scares (although, those do come).

Bill is joined by a band, all specific in their ways. There’s Eddie, the hypochondriac know-it-all, with his not one but two fanny packs; the spotlessly composed Stanley, the rabbi’s son, who has a bar mitzvah coming up; the overtly geeky Richie, who overcompensates with his constant sexual chatter. The quartet is joined by new kid-on-the-block (pop reference intact), Ben, too bookish and too fat to fit into this very conventional town; Beverley, who is accused of sexual impropriety by an incredibly mean group of students; and Mike, who might be a victim both because of his race (he’s black), or the fact that he’s home-schooled. It’s some time before the septet all end up together. So, ‘It” ambles along for its first hour building up to the group’s eventual coalescing. In the interim, most of the band must encounter something they fear. Images of supernatural things to fear are interspersed with more realistic things – salacious parents with overt (in Bev’s case) or covert (in the case of Eddie) sexual inclinations for their children, and grieving but distant fathers or grandparents who don’t understand. The world of “It” is not just marked by a creepily smiling clown who wreaks havoc but from the librarians to the storeowners to the parents–Derry is a town suffering a severe case of adults with nothing to offer.

There’s a late scene, the film’s most effective jump-scare where one of the gang faces off a realistic monster only to be faced with a supernatural one. Both moments are played for equal terror, as it hits home (albeit unsubtly), the film’s principal theme– the real world and the adults who run it are just terrifying, just as distressing and just as destructive as the supernatural ones.

With such an overt theme, there’s a lot on the shoulders of the young cast members and in a film with lots of positive aspects the best thing is that they acquit themselves excellently. “It” and its main ensemble are rivalled by a handful of films this year (“The Beguiled” and “Girls Trip” most notably) that feature a main ensemble that seems completely in touch with each other. The child actors work effectively so that the film’s theme of “if we stick together we’ll be fine” works both as an actual theme in the narrative as well as a commentary on the film’s best attributes. There are oddities; Sophia Lillis seems older than all the boys, and Chosen Jacob’s Mike is away from the group for too long. Lieberher grounds the film with an everyman seriousness that’s moving and solid without being boring. He is the film’s ballast, and seems destined for a strong career ahead. Jack Dylan Grazer gives the busiest performance as hypochondriac Eddie. There are moments where Eddie’s posturing seems more like a child’s idea of adulthood, but his development emerges as my favourite in the film. Over time, the precocious mimicking of adulthood, gives way to a character with a satisfying narrative arc.

If my silence on the “It” of the film’s title seems odd, I’ll say that Bill Skarsgård’s turn as the clown is better seen that told. The film’s most compelling design element is the choice to have this version of the clown be more Victorian than contemporary, increasing the incongruity between him and his contemporary surroundings. The film, perhaps unsurprisingly, buckles a bit under the weight of its denouement and its resolution unfolds so quickly that it feels out of sync with the languor of the first 100 minutes. Of course, this 2017 version of “It” covers only half of what the first adaptation does. A sequel is already in production but this film never announces itself as one depending on additional knowledge. Instead, “It” benefits from not milking the “to-be-continued” aspect. The film feels complete, and its climax feels earned. At the end, we believe it when these children seemed changed. They pass through the crucible of fear and come out the better for it.

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