It (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

It (2017)

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It feeds, and a group of outcast children calling themselves the Losers Club may be the only people able stop it.  Andy Muschietti directs It, with the screenplay written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, and stars an ensemble cast led by Bill Skarsgård and Sophia Lillis.

I closed my eyes.  Couldn't stop the tears, then I couldn't stop the shakes, and I felt my body freezing up.  I wasn't in control anymore.  I had to remind myself - I am here.  I am not what I am seeing onscreen, I am not bleeding, I am not being held down, I am not being attacked for being different, I am here with my wife and holding her hand trying to focus what bit I have control over to listen to her.  "Do you need to leave?"  I can't answer.  I'm desperately trying to ground myself.  I will not let it beat me this time.  It can't hurt me anymore.  It can't hurt me anymore.  It won't hurt me anymore.  I breathe, feel my feet on the ground, count the seats in front of me when I can open my eyes, and I am here.  Back in this theater.  Realizing now that I can't watch It so much as withstand watching my trauma laid bare in violent detail right on the screen.  I am dazed, but the fear has passed, and I am able to finish It knowing I'm not done with It and I can't imagine a time when It will be done with me.

There's a subsection of It's audience that may not be able to ground themselves when confronted with the brutally real violence of It.  I'm not talking about the scenes with Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), those have visual metaphors to cushion the lingering pain of trauma, a space where I could visualize my pain without having to face it.  Those kids are able to visualize the metaphors Pennywise uses to attack them because they're on the cusp of adulthood.  The way forward lies through disease, bigoted violence, distorted perceptions of biological changes, and each kid - be it because of their weight, asthma, sex, skin color - have to deal with the pain now instead of gaining distance to transform their experience into art.  When It claws into me it's through blood, in broad daylight, as victims of violence struggle alone against bullies who get no greater thrill than seeing those they perceive as weak suffer.

For all the gloom and death, the cinematography enjoys wide-open spaces and sparkling brightness when the Losers Club gets a moment to be themselves.

Andy Muschietti's It is a creature feature, one that's less condescending than the PBS 1990 adaptation that starred Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  Skarsgård is no Curry, but Curry's grasp of camp and menace has no place in the existential dread of being caught between childhood and adulthood with no way to retreat into the comforts of the former while being ill-equipped at handling the responsibilities of the latter.  From a design perspective, Pennywise is masterfully constructed to operate in this liminal space of adolescence.  His broadened head, cracking at the seams, recalls a baby with a skin condition - monstrous adult violence barely held back by this facade of childhood.  Skarsgård makes this Pennywise his own by letting each of his lines end in an alluring dagger, a monstrously tantalizing idea that his threat will help each kid confront their personal demons while finding a way to destroy the literal one.  This Pennywise is a creature of predation, with his babyish features suggesting each child has the possibility of becoming as monstrous as he is, and Skarsgård lustfully manipulates this space to bring children to the adult realities of death.

Muschietti, working with cinematography Chung-hoon Chung, distorts the menace of adulthood with impressive tableau.  A standout early shot shows Stan (Wyatt Oleff) preparing for the Jewish rite of passage by reading from the Torah.  He looks small, trapped in the corner of the screen by bars and the book, while his father looms on a towering pulpit in the background.  There's so much to get into here - the way the liminal space of adolescence is captured in a kid singing a language he doesn't understand, the perpetual fear of adults and the way their insecurities oppress their kids, with literally no way to go back without Stan inflicting pain on himself should he choose to squeeze through the bars.  By the time the climax rolls around, Muschietti and Stan are going nuts with the presentation, switching aspect ratios in the middle of a nightmare battle to show the kids sharing in Pennywise's adult perspective of torment to gain the courage necessary to defeat it.

The kids of the Losers Club are phenomenal in every aspect of It.  They're written with affection, letting motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard) think of every sex joke he can tell while clearly not 100% understanding the implications, and with their varying physical signifiers I saw how awkward they were entering their adolescence.  I also loved that Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the husky kid of the Losers Club, found a way to turn his embarrassment over loving New Kids on the Block into a proud strength.  Ditto for how Muschietti embraces that love for one moment, when Bev (Sophia Lillis) finds a New Kids poster behind his door and the camera cuts to each of their faces while their pop beats play in staggered order on the soundtrack.  It's a moment of hope in a film so stacked with trauma, that this private - if ostracized - love makes him more appealing to the right people.

Speaking of Bev, she's the most fascinating aspect of an already compelling crew.  She feels ahead of her time, not just in the way Lillis' performance effortlessly navigates Bev's awareness of the effect she has on the boys of the Losers Club or slowly confronting the trauma she knows her father is infecting her with.  Her clothes don't quite match the fashions of the time, with her loose dresses and leggings something I'm more likely to see walking around Atlanta than in the time of Reagan.  But I like this, it's a subtle way of making her a strong anomaly around the otherwise '80s-appropriate dressed members of the Losers Club, and Lillis' confidence in Bev's skin turn scenes that might have been exploitative - like the way the Losers Club stares at her as she sunbathes - into moments where Bev is owning her surroundings.

Almost as if Andy Muschietti anticipated my response, there is one handy metaphor in a monster emerging from what you think are safe memories.

The same can't be said for Mike (Chosen Jacobs), though I'm more conflicted on his character than dismissive.  Some of It's most powerful images come from Mike's perception, the highlight being a vision of black arms struggling against a door while a fire burns away at their flesh.  This happens shortly before Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) the town bully screams by in his car to tell Mike, "Stay out of my town."  Mike is the only black child character in It, and his vision then subsequent bigoted treatment recall how nostalgia is tinged mostly with positive memories for white characters while the black characters are left off-screen to deal with the legacy of trauma alone.  It's a powerful moment, but I'm less secure in the first glimpse of Mike, holding a silver piston gun used to kill sheep.  This is a sly allusion to Killer of Sheep, a pioneering film for black independent directors, but I'm also wary of how the first glimpse of It's sole black main character is with gun-in-hand.  At the same time, Mike has to learn how to fight against his oppressors his own way, and I might be out of line to judge this.

To leave you with a warning - It forced my memories to flood back to the trauma I experienced as an 11-year-old.  The details are for me alone to deal with, but I bled the same as Ben albeit in a different place on my body and in more humiliating circumstances.  By refusing to condescend the Losers Club, Muschietti also spares no safe space for the audience.  It is not a film to be taken lightly.  It's also the most effective cinematic experience of 2017.  Go with love and care, but do your best to be prepared for memories you might not be able to control.  I wasn't.

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It (2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti.
Screenplay written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman.
Starring an ensemble cast led by Bill Skarsgård and Sophia Lillis.

Posted by Andrew

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