Let’s get this out of the way first: Pennywise the Clown, played by Bill Skarsgård with a jaunty ferocity, is absolutely terrifying in the adaptation of Stephen King's It. At one point, my seat companion involuntarily emitted a shriek, and I flew a few inches out of my seat. That night, when I turned off the lights to go to sleep, Pennywise’s bright buck teeth briefly shone in my dark imagination.
But it’s been a few days, and time, great cosmic eraser that it is, has diminished the horror of Pennywise. Another horror, one more based in the material world, has taken Pennywise’s place. Now, the scene I can’t get out of my head is that of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), teetering on the knife’s edge of her adult sexuality, having a tense conversation with her lecherous father (Stephen Bogaert).
By that point in the film, Beverly, the only girl in the movie’s It-fighting gang of preteens, has been branded by her sexuality. The boys collectively gape at Beverly, as if she were some magic figure sent over from the other side of the gender divide. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Bill (Jaeden Lieberer) are especially smitten by Bev’s mixture of kindness and aloof self-confidence. Their admiration only grows more acute when Beverly flirts with, and distracts, an older pharmacist, allowing the Losers Club escape the store.
Disturbingly enough, Mr. Marsh seems to relish his daughter’s burgeoning femininity as much as her peers do. Yet whereas Ben writes Bev an admirably literary poem about her hair, her father burrows his face in her hair and takes a deep whiff. He forces her to promise that she’ll stay his “little girl” forever.
Clearly, Beverly has lived in a constant state of fear long before It jumped into her life. In fact — and this association comes as no surprise — the camera films Mr. Marsh’s face from below, the same angle by which Pennywise is filmed.
While no incident of sexual abuse occurs in the film, each scene between Beverly and her father is laced with the understanding of what he wants, and what she knows he wants. Then, the dam breaks: Mr. Marsh chases Beverly through their stark apartment, pins her to the floor, and attempts to abuse her. What she must do to escape is equally traumatic.
In the movie, though, Mr. Marsh isn’t possessed by It. He’s just motivated by a regular, human evil, the kind that will stick around even after if the kids vanquish Pennywise the Clown's supernatural threat.
The scariest character in It isn’t a supernatural demon which emerges every 27 years, because, no matter how vivid the CGI effects are or how growly Skarsgard’s voice is, Pennywise the Clown is not real. The scariest character is Beverly’s abusive father, and the entire adult world depicted in It.
Beverly’s father is the most alarmingly abusive parent of the children in the Losers’ Club, but the rest are controlling or neglectful in their own ways. Eddie’s (Jack Dylan Grazer) smothering mother (Sonia Kasprak) has Munchausen by proxy syndrome, and puts him on a strict regimen of placebo pills, rendering him a hypochondriac. Bill’s father (Geoffrey Pounsett) is severe and emotionally removed. Stan’s father (Ari Cohen) watches Stan (Wyatt Oleff) bumble through the Torah from the temple rafters and shouts insults.
Though they don't believe it yet, the kids in the Losers Club are a few decades away from their parents’ situations — perhaps the worst of all possible realities. For them, growing up means losing touch with the things that matter: Bravery, integrity, goodness. Growing up means becoming blind to the world — adults in the film are literally incapable of seeing It’s tricks. If kids are the movie's heroes, then both It and the adults are the enemy. The Losers Club is blisteringly aware, and almost pitying, the foibles of their less-noble adult counterparts.
More than the clown, what I’ll remember from It is its haunting implications about the adult world. At their best, adults are snide gossips, who wish to hurry children along on a pre-conceived track. At their worst, adults are like Beverly’s father. The kids don’t need a clown to scare them — their parents are villainous enough.
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