I Saw the TV Glow (A24, PG-13)

There’s just something about being a teenager, things just click differently.  It’s an unusual, uncomfortable, formative time that seems to stretch on forever yet only lasts a few years.  You’re a vessel looking for cargo, a blank canvas looking for your personal color.  You’re searching down every avenue for acceptance, identity and meaning.  We all remember the book, the TV show, the band that we obsessed over, knew everything about and got so deeply consumed until it became part of our outward personality.  Maybe you had a friend group that all watched the same show every week, eager to get together and gab about the characters and their weekly exploits.  The media we consume forms a central bond between those who share it together; it creates a unique clique who have shared themes and mythology. But what happens when those media pleasures become coping mechanisms?  When they become so much more than escapism, but a literal escape from reality?  What does a lifetime of parasocial media consumption do to one’s core identity? 

These are some of the questions raised by writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s A24 sophomore feature I Saw the TV Glow, a strange, unsettling, and beautiful film that won’t be for everyone but will slice directly into the subconsciousness of a certain pocket of its audience. Specifically, those who came of age in the 1990’s and were raised by television in the suburbs, who spent Saturday nights alone with SNICK, who didn’t always know how to fit in, and who today harbor an aching nostalgia for the connection they formed with the one-way media they grew up with.

On its surface, I Saw the TV Glow begins as the story of two socially awkward high school students (both with troubled home lives) who are drowning in the conformity of 90s suburbia. Owen, (Justice Smith) a younger black boy who is uncomfortable in his own skin meets Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) a dark, goth lesbian as they both hide in the cafeteria to avoid the large social function in the gym.  Owen is intrigued by the book Maddy is reading and inquires about the cover. Maddy explains it’s an episode guide for her favorite TV shows: a cult, monster-of-the-week, young-adult program called The Pink Opaque.  The show is essentially a blender of early millennial Urtexts (think Buffy: The Vampire Slayer with a dash of Charmed, poured over the unsettling horror elements of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?). 

Before long, Owen is coming over every week to watch the new episodes of the The Pink Opaque with Maddy.  They obsess over their shared fictional world; meeting weekly to dissect and map out the mythology and lore of the latest episode.  When the show gets unexpectedly and unceremoniously canceled, the two drift apart and go their own ways. Years later, Maddy suddenly reenters Owen’s life without warning, seemingly with secret information about the show that could upend their reality.   

This is a very difficult film to discuss without spoilers.  It’s a film of two allegories: one very straightforward and explicit allegory for trans identity and one more subsurface and implicit about nostalgia and our one-way relationship with our formative media.  It unspools information over time in a drip-drip, dream logic fashion, building its “reality” while peppering in the surreal, upsetting cracks in the facade.  Like a warped game of Jenga, it both builds up a base while at the same time creating holes in that base until we must both question the nature of the reality we are presented with and the reliability of the narrator’s own perception.  The film builds to a Lynchian Fever Dream Climax that some will find challenging and inscrutable, and others will find personally affecting and identifiable. When the credits rolled at my screening, not one person got out of their chair.  Everyone sat in the glow of the screen, trying to decipher what we had just witnessed.  While not for everyone, those who seek out this kind of powerful and challenging film will undoubtedly find mysteries to mine.  I can’t say I enjoyed the actual experience of watching the film, it both feels overstuffed and somehow incredibly concise, but… I can say that not a single day has passed without thinking about it.   | Joseph C. Roussin

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