Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun immediately made a splash with their 2021 debut feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Premiering at the online-only edition of the Sundance Film Festival, Schoenbrun’s affecting story of isolation and dysphoria resonated with many in a way few films have before. In its truest sense, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is authentic outsider art. Now, though, that film looks like a mere trial run compared to the monster that is Schoenbrun’s follow-up, I Saw the TV Glow produced by A24. Expanding on the themes of World’s Fair and then some, I Saw the TV Glow is a surrealist, deeply affecting odyssey through loneliness, media consumption, and queer identity that is sure to leave audiences both in awe and emotionally exhausted.
Owen (Ian Foreman) is a quiet boy. Close to his ailing mother (Danielle Deadwyler) and in fear of his controlling father (Fred Durst), he finds a friend in fellow outcast Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Maddy introduces him to the television series “The Pink Opaque,” a show evoking Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Are You Afraid of the Dark? starring two monster-fighting teenage girls Tara (Lindsey Jordan) and Isabel (Helena Howard) who share a psychic link. As Owen grows older (played by Justice Smith), he and Maddy use the series to cope with their difficult home lives as well as parse feelings regarding their own identity. One day, Maddy disappears entirely. Years pass, and Maddy reappears in Owen’s life, sharing troubling information that alters how Owen sees the past and the present. From then on, reality itself and the world of the show start to bleed together.
On a visual level, I Saw the TV Glow is a technical marvel. Cinematographer Eric K. Yue (A Thousand and One) paints a vivid tableau, from the lovingly CRT-lined world of “The Pink Opaque” that seems to get more threatening with the characters’ changing emotions to the white fuzz that illuminates Owen’s face in the dark. The escape of “The Pink Opaque” becomes a crutch to the degree that it evolves into a method of expression, almost like the truth of who Owen and Maddy really are is leaking into their current false identities. The imagery writer-director Jane Schoenbrun deploys very purposefully portrays the struggle between the darkness of isolation and the uncertainty and otherworldliness of confronting what’s inside.
Surrealism must be purposeful to work. When Owen opens his own chest to find static struggling to escape, it’s striking, sure, but it’s more than anything underlining a core theme of the film that Owen espoused earlier: he feels like someone hollowed out his insides and put something else in there. There we find the core of Schoenbrun’s film – a distinct allegory for the experience of transitioning. Schoenbrun wrote the film in the middle of their transition, finding the experience overwhelming. As a cis critic, I cannot weigh in on the verisimilitude of the movie’s metaphorical (and at times very literal) portrayal of transitioning. What rings true regardless, though, is the feeling of being in the middle of a tunnel, unable to see the light.
Justice Smith (Generation, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves) conveys this anguish in a way few actors would dream of achieving. He devastates in his quiet moments of withdrawing from the world around him, his soft voice the whimper of a tortured soul. The moments where he fully lets his pain out are primal, gut-wrenching expressions of terror. If movies are empathy machines, Smith wrings every last drop out of the audience. Brigette Lundy-Paine (Bill & Ted Face the Music, Bombshell) is equally terrific as Maddy, conveying a more subtle kind of pain, that of having moved on, trying to help their friend break through to the other side. The quiet heartbreak of two friends who have experienced something similar, but are two completely different points in their journey, is extremely resonant.
What should be acknowledged, too, is how utterly frightening I Saw the TV Glow is, though not in a traditional way. Rather, Jane Schoenbrun dwells on the overwhelming feeling of being stuck in your own skin and unable to escape your situation. A slow drip of visuals from “The Pink Opaque” suggests a paradise that’s just out of reach… until the very imagery that used to give comfort warps to become a constant reminder that it (seemingly) will never be reached. The disturbing visage of the show’s big bad “Mr. Melancholy”, an uncanny face on the moon, looms over; a symbol of the hell that Owen has found himself in.
That interplay, between the fictional and real world, and the obliteration of the line between reality and television, makes a fascinating point about media consumption. “The Pink Opaque” starts as a way of connecting with oneself, an essential tool for Maddy’s salvation. For Owen, it becomes just a distraction – something that he actively ignores as a tool for understanding the world. In a hard watch of a third act, Owen finds himself more and more suffocated by denial, not just of the program, but of himself. It’s a riveting exercise in depersonalization that will leave audiences shaken to their very core.
No doubt, many will feel the same. Jane Schoenbrun has made a singular work of art. It’s the kind of film that is destined to change the lives of those who watch it, whether it’s due to relatability or the dynamic filmmaking on display. That’s the mark of a watershed film, like those that have premiered at Sundance before. It’s clear from the talent A24 managed to muster – music by Phoebe Bridgers, Alex G, and Caroline Polacheck among others was commissioned along with supporting roles from the likes of Conner O’Malley – that Schoenbrun is being recognized as someone who will be very important in cinema moving forward, not just the horror genre.
I Saw the TV Glow is a paradigm shift, not only for Schoenbrun but also for how movies portray the human experience. Just like “The Pink Opaque,” I Saw the TV Glow leaps right off the screen and becomes one with the audience.