'I Saw the TV Glow' and It Was a Bit Dim

Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Starring Brigette Lundy-Paine, Justice Smith

Photo courtesy of VVS Films

BY Leina GabraPublished May 16, 2024


In her second narrative feature, Jane Schoenbrun answers the question, "What happens when TV fandom goes too far?" However, I Saw The TV Glow digs much deeper than this, exploring gender dysphoria, the discomfort of growing up and the monotony of adulthood, all while building a meticulous, stylistic vibe that glitters with neon lights, nostalgic sets and an outstanding original score.

When we first meet Owen (Justice Smith), he's an awkward preteen who becomes entranced by Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), an older schoolmate he finds reading an episode guide for The Pink Opaque, a fictional TV show about two girls, Tara and Isabel, who use their psychic connection to fight supernatural foes, all sent by their ultimate nemesis, Mr. Melancholy. His ultimate objective is to trap Tara and Isabel in Mr. Melancholy's world, the Midnight Realm, putting a permanent end to their psychic battle.

Maddy's love of the show rubs off on Owen, and the two bond as two high school outcasts in suburbia. One day, The Pink Opaque is suddenly cancelled. The mysterious and menacing series finale precipitates Maddy and Owen's descent into obsession and fantasy, leading the audience to ask the same question Maddy and Owen face: what is fiction, and what is reality?

Maddy and Owen struggle as teenagers, and eventually young adults, to navigate their sexualities and the gruelling repetition of work while searching for their identities. As they try to escape reality, The Pink Opaque consumes them.

This film offers no solace to those who, like the main characters, fill the void with television. Instead, it offers a heartbreaking slap in the face, reminding audiences that life is not a TV show. "This isn't the Midnight Realm," Owen reminds Maddy. "It's just the suburbs."

Although I Saw The TV Glow's media-within-media is impressively constructed, the actual film's production stands out most. In many ways, the film feels like it was made to become a Gen Z cult classic: its glossy aesthetic features both a remarkably cinematic score by Alex G and a random Phoebe Bridgers cameo. Cinematographer Eric Yue and production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly's work expertly portrays a flurry of lights, colours and a particular '90s teenage nostalgia that gives a chaotically dreamy quality to the nightmare that is reality.

Yet, despite all of these successes, the two main characters often feel like they miss the mark. Owen relays some of the plot directly to the camera in jarring narration sequences, an element of the film that confounds and flattens the quality of the plot rather than enhancing it.

Moreover, for a film that asks the audience to understand the turmoil and codependence of the main characters, Owen and Maddy's dialogue often lacks chemistry. Justice Smith's portrayal of Owen's dysphoria is powerful, but during his scenes with Brigette Lundy-Paine, his presence feels weaker. Lundy-Paine's performance as Maddy is muted — sometimes so much so that it's challenging for the audience to connect to the character's turmoil.

In one of the film's most pivotal scenes, Maddy and Owen argue over what is real and what isn't, but both characters lack the intensity needed for the moment. Arguably, the point is that these two characters are both consumed by their own worlds, both real and fantasized — but, on the other hand, this could simply be the result of poor casting.

Schoenbrun and the production team's depiction of teenage angst, media obsession and existential dread is a delightfully chilling affront to the senses. Schoenbrun clearly built this story with careful intention and care. Although Smith and Lundy-Paine leave a little to be desired in their embodiments of Owen and Maddy, I Saw The TV Glow is a testament to Schenbrun's promising talent in the world of weird.

(VVS Films)

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