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Summer is usually a time when kids, liberated from schoolroom tedium and the anxiety of waiting for the bell to ring, can concentrate on having fun. But that’s not necessarily how things are in the town of Derry, where posters of missing children proliferate.

One of those children is Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), who left home one day in pursuit of a toy boat and never came back. His mistake was attempting to retrieve the toy as it floated into a sewer — and into the hands of someone lurking below.

Georgie’s disappearance haunts his older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who refuses to accept the possibility that he’s dead. Bill is also becoming increasingly aware of a supernatural presence in Derry — a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) who is somehow connected to the town’s dark history and who pops up unexpectedly to terrify his targets.

With his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Bill sets out to confront the clown. Along the way they find allies in Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and the charismatic but troubled Beverly (Sophia Lillis).

Together, they’re determined to make a stand. But how can a bunch of kids hope to triumph over pure evil?

Based on a novel by Stephen King, “It” is among the best and scariest film adaptations of his work. King has a genius for creating appealing characters whom he subjects to appalling situations. In translating his sensibility to the screen, the trick is to tap into the horror without sacrificing the human element, and director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) mostly gets that right.

Working from a screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) and Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”), Muschietti conjures an atmosphere of dread that allows for the occasional burst of humor.

And he elicits splendid performances from his young and talented cast — particularly Lillis, whose spunky charisma brings to mind Scarlett Johansson and Emma Stone.

If you’re looking for a film that’s guaranteed to have you gripping your seat, this is “It.”

What “It” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 2:15 • Rating R • Content Violence, bloody images and language

Calvin Wilson is theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.