One curious charge I’ve seen leveled at It Follows, even in some favorable reviews, is a reference to “style over substance.” There’s an implication in this phrase the film lacks thematic depth in favor of superficial camera tricks. Film critics who use it seem to imagine movies (or any artform, really) as this battle between the story being told and a checklist of tics the artist simply indulges in, with story having to win out or else the film is a failure. This is a simplistic and, in the case of a movie like It Follows, dangerous way of looking at films, as the story is precisely in the way David Robert Mitchell arranges his film. Consider the devices he uses, and the mood he elicits: scenes of quiet, suburban Detroit sprawl broken by someone running from something. A stationary shot of a group of teens gathered, parsing out their next move while a background figure moves towards them–is it the It which is following Jaime (Maika Monroe) or some bystander going about their business? The pulsing, industrial score from Disasterpeace when It appears. Water from pools and Lake Erie as an ominous motif. The way boys leer at girls (Jaime especially), curious, infatuation and lust in equal measure. How the camera swivels around in 360 degrees as It draws closer to its prey. Anxiety is the invisible force which drives It Follows.
Primarily, this anxiety is sexual. The most obvious is STDs: after getting intimate during a date, Jaime is drugged and bound by the man she’s with, who proceeds to explain how he’s “passed it on” to her. “It” being a mysterious, shape-shifting entity which walks after the people carrying its curse until it catches and kills them. Once It’s passed on, however, It goes after the most recently cursed person, killing them before returning to their predecessor. Jaime is urged to have sex and buy herself some time. Unrequited suitor Paul is game, but she’s ambivalent about his advances; bad boy across the street Greg may not have as much emotional attachment–seen flirting with Jaime’s sister Kelly or checking out their friend Yara–but his prospects of passing It on seem more likely. Social pressure and sexuality shown as fluid, intense things.
Monroe plays Jaime as quiet, assured yet internal. Pre-curse, she lounges in the pool, content with being. Chats in her tight-knit group are comfortably chummy, most of the talking comes from the others. Once It pursues her, she becomes withdrawn, terrified of this thing which could take the form of anyone. She bars the door to her room. Her peers are skeptical–It is visible only to its prey–going along with her story more to keep her calm than because they believe. It’s only during a close call, what they see as Jaime’s hair yanked by an invisible hand, they grasp the situation. Mitchell toys with how the same phenomena is perceived differently, especially in how It will take different forms depending on who It pursues and who sees It. Reality becomes splintered. Relative.
The social fabric itself takes on this quality. Detroit is shown unstuck in time, teens reading e-readers while riding in 70s muscle cars. Homes don’t appear to have been redecorated since the 60s while modern architecture looms in the skyline. Phones are mainly of the corded variety and televisions still have antennas. Match cuts cycle neighborhoods between decay and pristine, death and rebirth, reality and dream (or rather, nightmare). Adults either ignore problems or shift blame. After Jaime’s dropped in front of her house, half-clothed, by her date, police are called; incredulous, the officer taking her statement asks “So it was consensual?” Greg’s mother watches this from the living room, casting judgment. Yara relates how her parents made her fearful of going south of 8 Mile Road. Jaime’s own mother doesn’t seem concerned with the whereabouts of her daughters, or their well-being; they return the indifference by keeping her in the dark about their situation. Mitchell never allows anything to feel right, because the teens never feel right. Their anxieties are shrugged off. No one wants to talk about It. The kids are left to figure this out on their own.