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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'I Saw the TV Glow': A Moving, Haunting Tale of Identity and Self-Discovery

With their debut feature, We're All Going to the World's Fair, Jane Schoenbrun explored themes of isolation, human connection, and self-discovery via a viral internet game that the film's two lead characters play. The film was made on a micro budget, with its lo-fi aesthetic heightening the film's unsettling aura and entrancing viewers at the same time. With their second feature, I Saw the TV Glow, Schoenbrun revisits some of these themes, this time through a 90s young adult TV show that the two lead characters are obsessed with. With a much larger budget, they expand on what they established with World's Fair and further asserts them as a singular voice in cinema. Much like their previous film, I Saw the TV Glow blurs the line between fantasy and reality, creating an uneasy atmosphere that gradually draws you in. In the process, it manages to be equally beautiful and upsetting, and powerfully portrays the difficulties of being comfortable in your own skin.

Owen (Justice Smith) is an isolated teenager who lives with his strict parents. One night, he sees a commercial for a TV show called The Pink Opaque, and is immediately fascinated by it. His classmate, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), invites him over to watch an episode, and the two bond over their obsession of it. As Owen watches more and more of The Pink Opaque, he begins to see his reality unravel. When Maddy mysteriously disappears and the show gets canceled, he struggles to make sense of everything, and is confronted with a startling possibility that makes him question what is real and what is not.

With both We're All Going to the World's Fair and I Saw the TV Glow, Jane Schoenbrun tells stories about self-discovery, highlighting the dread and challenges that come with it. I would argue that I Saw the TV Glow is more on the nose about this, but that is mainly because it is the more accessible of the two. That being said, some might be repelled by Schoenbrun's direction, as there is a level of ambiguity to it that might frustrate viewers. The film is not so much concerned with giving the audience easy answers, and is instead more evocative, allowing the viewer to form their own connections. This gives the film the ability to be interpreted in many different ways, so those hoping that this film is more conventional or that it spells everything out for them are out of luck. Those who are able to get on Schoenbrun's very specific wavelength, however, are in for something very special.

It is rather clear that the film is an allegory for accepting ones identity, as Schoenbrun draws from their own experience coming out as non-binary. The journey that the characters go on in the film parallels that which people questioning their gender identity experience, as there is a disconnect between what they feel inside and what they are pressured to be by society. While the film doesn't ever explicitly state that it is about being trans, it is heavily implied throughout. An early shot features a group of children playing under a parachute featuring the colors of the trans pride flag, as a younger version of Owen walks around underneath it. There is also the concept of gender presentation that is touched on, specifically through the character of Maddy. As she confronts the divide between reality and fantasy, we see her shifting from a more feminine look to a more androgynous one. Furthermore, Owen is struggling to understand certain parts of himself, mirroring the dysphoria that many trans people experience. So much of the film deals with two characters feeling out of place and trying to understand the things about that they might not have a name for or that they have a hard time accepting, and it is executed incredibly well.

The film is such a rich text about discovering and understanding ones identity, and it has a lot to say about how difficult it can be. It is a true journey that some might spend their whole lives trying to comprehend, and might not fully embrace who they truly are for any number of reasons. This film depicts this so fully and viscerally that it shook me to my core. The truthfulness that Schoenbrun brings as both writer and director is staggering, and when coupled with the tense, psychological aspects of the film, becomes something that will stay on my mind for the foreseeable future. On top of that, the visuals are so arresting, as the film uses shadows, the color pink, and some inventive creature design to craft shots that leave an indelible impact. There are moments of this film that brought to mind the work of David Lynch, mainly in the more expressionistic style that is employed. Schoenbrun is an excellent visual storyteller, and this film sees them step up their game in this respect. They clearly have a gift for bringing psychological horror to life, and this film is a great showcase of their talent.

One of the things I connected with was how well the film captures nostalgia and the effect media can have on us. The film features the fictional young adult show The Pink Opaque, which feels like a mix of 90s Nickelodeon shows like The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Are You Afraid of the Dark? and The Secret World of Alex Mack. The film captures the look and feel of these shows, and really connected with me as some who grew up watching them. The show is treated as this doorway to another world, much like how some use media as a means of escape. There is something powerful about watching a movie or a TV show that unlocks something about you or that lets you forget about the dissatisfaction you might feel in your day-to-day life. This film understands this power so well, and allows it to permeate the entire thing. It shows that media can be more than just entertainment, while also posing questions about the nostalgia we might have for the past. It goes hand in hand with the film's exploration of identity, and makes the film more potent as a result.

The two lead performances of this film blew me away, especially Justice Smith's. Smith is an actor that I've generally enjoyed watching in the past, but this is hands down his best work yet. He is a bit low-key for most of the film, but there is a vulnerability to him that shines through. While he is more grounded, he still makes a major mark on the film, building and building until the film's heartbreaking final moments. It is a performance that has some interesting layers to it, and left me astonished. I am primarily familiar with Brigette Lundy-Paine through their work on the Netflix show Atypical, and I have been waiting to see them show up in more things. They are superb in this film, acting as a foil for Smith's Owen and demonstrating such a strong presence throughout. Anytime they show up, it sends shockwaves through the rest of the film. Their defining moment is a lengthy monologue they deliver in the third act, which ends up being one of the most captivating moments of the whole film. I also enjoyed some of the supporting performances, namely Ian Foreman as a younger Owen, Connor O'Malley as Owen's obnoxious boss, Danielle Deadwyler as Owen's mom, and Fred Durst (yes, that Fred Durst) as Owen's dad. But it is truly Smith and Lundy-Paine who carry most of the film, and both are easily among my favorite performances of the year.

I Saw the TV Glow is a film that cut me deep, but I know that this film is definitely not for everyone. It may a bit abstruse for some viewers, but those who are able connect to its themes of identity and self-discovery will likely leave the film moved. It is type of film that I wanted to watch instantly the moment it was over, as it feels like there is a lot more to dig into with it. I can definitely see this film growing on me even more with time, and I am honestly excited to revisit it and see what else there is to discover within it. This film hit me like a ton of bricks, and is one of the more mind-blowing moviegoing experiences I've had all year. It is absolutely stunning and brilliant, and while it won't gel with some, it most certainly gelled with me.

Rating: 4.5/5

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