What is it about Andy Muschietti’s It, an adaptation of Stephen King’s monstrously sized novel of childhood trauma and clowns, that makes the film feel so bland and unimportant? It certainly wants to feel lively and fun and maybe even a little important. It wants to feel alive. The various iterations of It have all tried to reconcile with otherness, being an outsider, a “loser”, if you will. But the gravity of those implications isn’t there perhaps because It is a film that is unsure of what It is, shifting and transforming in tone as quickly as the monster haunting the film’s characters. But It is unable to settle confidently in any one of its tonal or aesthetic personae.
That’s just It; it’s not even so much the inability to settle, but that it may not know how to settle, to find a grove or a comfortable spot, to find a sense of an assured aesthetic or even ideological identity. Things float down here, and that’s the problem; with the weight of the consequences and implications of different characters’ actions always in flux in terms of how those actions are supposed to register (sometimes funny, sometimes scary, sometimes horrifying, but rarely with real dread), It ends up feeling like something relatively weightless, a bunch of kids and a director struggling to make trauma have tangible, bone shaking effectiveness. There’s clearly an influence from various ‘80s or ‘80s-recalling properties, but it never asserts its grounding, with the exception of certain characters’ and their arcs.
Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the chubby autodidact of the Loser’s Club, is one of two characters whose story seems not only the most grounded, but also impressive on an execution level, the other being Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis). Both Taylor and Lillis seem to have almost outsized skill for their ages, able to color their characters and imbue their performances with a kind of interiority that the writing should technically allow the rest of the cast but is never actually rendered (they’re kids, I guess?). There’s a textural quality to their presences and performances, that every moment of fear, even if it’s questionably presented or executed by Muschietti or writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, is earned. The look in Taylor’s eyes when he’s being cut into by bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamiton) and when Bev is being preyed upon by her father articulates an extremely complex relationship the two have with their bodies and with bodies in general. Ben, uncomfortable with his own physicality (though Taylor is a great physical actor), instead explores in detail the body of history and geography of Derry, ME. The small town’s surface is wide and sprawling, an uneasy history lurking beneath its skin. If Ben can’t be comfortable in his own, he’ll investigate his new town’s. Bev’s relationship to her body, and to others’ bodies, is defined by what other people say about her or do to her. So much of her arc’s (should be) is that of regaining autonomy over herself. It, perhaps more in the text, maps out the difficulties of that, that such a thing is easier said than done. A sink ejaculates geysers of blood, and while the visual metaphor is apt, her response to it, as well as the interaction with her father following the incident, speaks volumes. It means that her relationship to the boys in the club will always be with reticence because predators lurk everywhere.
But the “gang’s all here on Netflix in faux ‘80s affect” stains the film, making It feel as if the film’s artifice applies both to its sense of tone (knockoff Stand By Me) and physical world. The film feels like it prioritizes artifice rather than the emotional implications of the film, that, even without a particularly established aesthetic personality, it’s ostensibly an aesthete’s film. Or the idea of an aesthete’s film, considering little of the mise-en-scene or cinematography is memorable or very thoughtful.
The irony of It is that It, like It‘s leads, never really want to confront (or know how to?) the reality of the kind of trauma these kids are facing. They gesture to it, even graphically show things that should be traumatic, but I felt unscathed when maybe I should have been shaken. You see the monster a lot, Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise never really clarifying what the film wants to accomplish atmospherically. Maybe it has less to do with her performance specifically and more how this particular manifestation is presented: so often out in the open, his HR Geiger-remniscent barbed teeth ready to to excise another limb, or on stage or falling out of a cupboard, his joints stiff like an automaton. It seems considerably less frightening if this fear has been literalized to the point of cartoonishness.
One would think that bringing back to life the dead younger brother of your de facto lead would be ripe for dealing with mortality, even the fragility of childhood. But the movie rarely feels up for confronting those issues in a serious way, or a convincing way, with Jaeden Lieberher’s Bill struggling to reconcile with loss and bereavement, the unraveling of his family. But It is too busy conjuring the literal metaphors of his loss, as opposed to sketching out more in more detail the more abstract unfathomable repercussions. It can’t even address racism in an intelligent way. But that seems to be the film’s problem in general. It is too “real”, too “physical”, not ethereal, suggestive, gestural, or mind bending, not sad, and not very scary. I say this as someone who hates clowns. Maybe It’s problem is that It only understands an idea of fear, and trauma, rather than embodying fear itself.