I Saw The TV Glow

A couple months ago, Justice Smith starred in The American Society Of Magical Negroes, a story of a meek young man dealing with identity issues in a world he feels is indifferent to his existence. He now leads the new A24 experimental horror film I Saw The TV Glow, which also tackles the thorny but evergreen theme of trying to find one’s place in their surroundings. While the former movie does so with a combination of racial satire and romantic fantasy, the latter is much more atmospheric and esoteric in its exploration by comparison. It comes courtesy of trans filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, whose 2021 effort We’re All Going To The World’s Fair garnered them widespread praise for its transportive aesthetic and wholly unique take on a coming-of-age tale. While TV Glow casts something of a similar spell, its unconventional storytelling makes it trickier to grasp, at least on first viewing.

Smith plays the withdrawn and soft-spoken Owen, whom we meet as a seventh grader in the mid-90s. While waiting for his mom to vote at his school that’s serving as a polling place, Owen meets ninth grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) as she studiously reads an episode guide for a show called The Pink Opaque. Upon watching the show for the first time, Owen is transfixed by it and a friendship develops between himself and Maddy, who hosts him for sleepovers so they can watch the show together. Their ritual continues for years until Maddy mysteriously disappears one day, leaving him without his only friend and what quickly becomes evident is one of his only tethers to the real world. In her absence, Owen ruminates on the connection and begins to believe that events from The Pink Opaque may not have been contained to the realm of the fictional.

As the lines between reality and fantasy blur for Owen, the passage of time in I Saw The TV Glow mirrors that of mind-benders Synecdoche, New York and last year’s Beau Is Afraid. Similarly, what is actually happening versus what is happening in the head of the protagonist gets more difficult to sort out, which can make the story frustrating at points. Outside of 90s shows like Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and Buffy The Vamprie Slayer, which are clear influences for the in-movie young adult series The Pink Opaque, Schoenbrun seems to be most inspired by David Lynch’s work in Twin Peaks. There’s a transcendent musical performance in a dive bar called Double Lunch with cameos from Haley Dahl and Phoebe Bridgers which calls to mind scenes from Lynch’s series that take place in the Roadhouse bar.

While an otherworldly mood permeates every moment of I Saw The TV Glow, Schoenbrun renders an half-remembered atmosphere that should resonate even more with those of us who were coming of age in the 90s. The first encounter between Owen and Maddy is partially lit by the beacon of a Fruitopia vending machine that’s wallflowering with the couple in a multi-purpose room. The hypnagogic vibe recalls a generation hypnotized by the flickering lights emitted by the cathode-ray tubes of now-massive television sets. If we fall asleep in front of our TVs, how can we be fully convinced of what’s been broadcast when our eyes are closed? Last year’s similarly challenging Skinamarink evoked this lucid-lit state even more directly but was marred by a stubbornly opaque storyline. Schoenbrun does have a narrative in mind with TV Glow, although it’s difficult to suss out what exactly is allegory and what is literal most of the time.

The film is co-produced by married couple Emma Stone and Dave McCary, the latter of whom directed Brigsby Bear in 2017 before moving on to produce several other A24 projects. His lone film has quite a bit of overlap with TV Glow, in that it’s also about an obsession over a children’s television program that spills into the protagonist’s life. The Sun-Stealer character from that movie closely resembles the Pink Opaque villain Mr. Melancholy, although both are clearly influenced from early silent classic A Trip To The Moon. But McCary has an infectious way of channeling his characters’ exuberance of their fandom that Schoenbrun forgoes for anxiety and dread. It makes I Saw The TV Glow a moody but maddening affair that succeeds on the strength of its world-building above all else.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, an action epic starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Chris Hemsworth which serves as a prequel to 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road centering around the titular mechanical-armed heroine.
Also coming to theaters is The Garfield Movie, an animated comedy starring Chris Pratt and Samuel L. Jackson in which the lasagna-loving comic-based canine is reunited with his long-lost street cat father and is forced into joining him on a high-stakes adventure.
Streaming on Netflix is Atlas, a sci-fi thriller starring Jennifer Lopez and Simu Liu that finds a data analyst with a deep distrust of artificial intelligence as she joins a mission to capture a renegade robot with whom she shares a mysterious past.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup