'It' Review: Come For The Evil Clown, Stay For The Incredible Kid Performances

There's a level of artifice inherent in acting. A great performance lets us forget that. Generally speaking, it's a more difficult task when it comes to child actors, which is what makes Andy Muschietti's It so remarkable. The Losers' Club he's assembled is stellar across the board; there's nothing about these kids that seems fake or affected, to the point that even when the film starts to fly off into more extreme flights of fancy, they manage to keep it firmly grounded.

It's the summer of '89 in Derry, Maine. School's out — as illustrated by a scene in which all the students dump the contents of their backpacks into the trash — and it's time to have fun. Or at least, it would be, were it not for a certain malevolent presence snatching kids left and right.

Even if you've never read the 1986 novel by Stephen King, or seen the 1990 miniseries featuring Tim Curry as the clown Pennywise, you know what that monster's going to be. The image of the creepy clown poking his head out of the sewer grate is practically inescapable; the iconography of It is indelibly embedded in pop culture. So when, in the middle of a downpour, Georgie Denbrough (the preternaturally cute Jackson Robert Scott) goes chasing after the paper boat his brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) made for him, there's an expectation for what's going to happen next. It's It's crucible, if you will: if the movie doesn't knock this iconic scene out of the park, it's toast. Luckily, it nails it, and sets the bar for the entire movie as it does.

It's best sequences are those grounded in the fears — rather than fantasies — that come part and parcel with growing up. Even though it's ultimately Pennywise (played by Bill Skarsgård this time around) who takes Georgie, it's Georgie's nervousness as he goes down into the basement to look for wax, and Bill's hesitation in sending his little brother out into the rain alone, that make what happen next all the more anxiety-inducing to watch.

That first scare also makes it very clear that Muschietti isn't messing around. It doesn't skimp on the gore, and the blood is particularly effective early on, when the violence is largely inflicted either by other kids, or by creatures that aren't too far out of the realm of believability — what happens to Georgie is shocking, as is the violence that befalls Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) at the hands of the local bullies, as they carve up his belly with a pocketknife.

For the first half of the film, it's not the clown that the Losers' Club is facing down, but their adolescent anxieties. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer, in an incredibly assured performance) is haunted by a leper. Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), whose parents died in a fire, sees burning hands clamoring to get out from behind a closed door. And Beverly Marsh's (Sophia Lillis) fears manifest in a fountain of blood, the cinematic shorthand for the female journey through puberty, as her own transition through it has resulted in a reputation as a slut at school, as well as abuse at the hands of her father (Stephen Bogaert).

It doesn't try to sugarcoat any of these characters' plights — Stan Uris' (Wyatt Oleff) membership in the Losers' Club is because he's Jewish, and Mike's is just as much a result of the fact that he isn't in school as it is the fact that he's black. They curse — Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) especially — to a degree that's practically unheard of in any movie featuring children, and upon being beset by bullies, throw rocks that land with real weight, and draw blood as such. They're all real to a point that's practically tangible.

Which brings us to the dancing clown. As Pennywise, Skarsgård manages to walk the line between creepy and quirky; it isn't difficult to see why Georgie doesn't just run away when he sees the clown in the drain. More importantly, though, he also manages to be terrifying. Especially in the beginning of the film, his appearances are always jarringly abrupt, and just mysterious enough — especially with regards to the extent of his ability to shape-shift — that it's hard not to jump. The more we see of him, though (i.e. the more that CGI comes into play), the less frightening he becomes. A clown has nothing on the things that plague us growing up.

As such, it's down to the kids to carry the weight that the monsters drop, and to their credit, they more than pick up the slack. Lillis in particular is excellent at balancing adolescent joy with adolescent horror, as is Taylor, who in the span of a single scene goes from dejected loneliness to the bashful awkwardness that comes with developing a crush.

Of course, this It is only a first chapter. The book follows the Losers' Club into adulthood, and Muschietti has already stated that a second chapter to It is his top priority. As exciting as it is to consider what a second run through this universe will feel like, it'll be a pity to leave the adolescent Losers' Club behind. The film depends — and succeeds — entirely on the strength of their performances, and for two hours that speed by all too quickly, it's not too much of a stretch to feel like we're on summer vacation with them. Hopefully the adults that take their place are up to the same challenge.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10