In the space of just two movies, Jane Schoenbrun has established a completely unique aesthetic; from the opening credits alone, a riot of black light and neon pastels, it’s obvious that I Saw the TV Glow comes from the same mind that created the trippy 2021 cult hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Anyone puzzled by the latter is advised to stay clear, since the follow-up is more vertiginously dizzying and twice as impressionistic, causing lots of head-scratching at its Sundance premiere. For those ready and willing to embrace its commitment to mood over logic, I Saw the TV Glow is a must-see, pairing the otherworldly ambience of Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink with the morbid surrealism of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. (If you know, you know.)
The film’s loose storyline involves a seventh-grader named Owen, a pupil at a school that appears to be named Void High and only has one other pupil. This is Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who’s a couple of years older and who Owen first meets with her head in a book: an episode guide to The Pink Opaque, a mysterious TV show that is variously described as “for kids” and, more witheringly by Owen’s father (Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst), “for girls.” Whatever the case, Owen is too young to see it, since it screens every school night at 10:30 p.m. on the Young Adult Channel, and in the analog mid-’90s, when the film is set, it’s hard to catch up. Nevertheless, Maddy starts inviting him over for illicit sleepovers, in the home she shares with her abusive stepfather.
More from Deadline
The Pink Opaque is a supernatural soap opera in which two teenage girls named Isabel and Tara, synched up by a psychic bond that connects them across the astral plane, do battle with Mr. Melancholy, the show’s “big bad.” Mr. Melancholy, who appears to live on, if not actually be, the Moon, wants to trap them and banish them to The Midnight Realm, each week sending a new monster to do his bidding. But at the height of its popularity, and after a major cliffhanger, the show is canceled, much to Owen and Maddy’s horror. The show lives on through videotapes that Maddy passes to Owen, and the pair open up to each other. Maddy reveals that Isabel and Tara “are like family to me” and, more personally, that’s she’s “into girls.” a detail that has made her a pariah. “Do you like girls?” she asks Owen. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I think I like TV shows.”
While the details of The Pink Opaque are fairly easy to process, the events of Owen’s real life from that moment on are definitely not. Maddy starts to scare him, saying that she’s getting out of town and she wants him to come with her. “Where will we go?” he asks. “We’ll know when we get there,” she replies. Things come to a head when Maddy suddenly disappears without trace, leaving behind a burning TV set. Owen carries on with his life, and is shocked when, eight years later, Maddy suddenly reappears, manically insisting that the show is real, and that Owen is not the person he thinks he is.
Given the director’s trans identity, it’s not hard to see I Saw The TV Glow as a metaphor for gender dysphoria, in Owen’s refusal to examine his true persona. But Schoenbrun also has a lot to say about the role of pop culture in adolescence and the dangers of holding onto it, as Owen will find when he revisits the show many years later. It can be trying at times, and Maddy’s many monologues (which the spellbinding Lundy-Paine delivers with impressive gusto) can be hard to follow. But Schoenbrun’s combative visual style produces some unforgettable images, like Owen’s father trying to pull him out of a possessed TV set as an electrical storm fills up the living room, or when Owen opens up his chest in a scene heavily reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s 1983 body horror Videodrome.
What does it all mean? That’s anyone’s guess, but, much like the UK’s Peter Strickland, Schoenbrun has an understanding of cult-movie fandom that makes their film much more than just lip-service to weirdness. David Lynch is an obvious reference, but, as Lynch did with the incredible Twin Peaks: The Return, Schoenbrun is working on an intuitive level, resulting in a film that lands a punch to the gut without the mind really knowing what’s just hit it.
Title: I Saw The TV Glow
Festival (Section): Sundance (Midnight)
Director/screenwriter: Jane Schoenbrun
Cast: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Fred Durst
Running time: 1 hr 40 min
Best of Deadline