'I Saw the TV Glow' review: Jane Schoenbrun's surreal and nostalgic film is a pop culture masterpiece

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine star in Schoenbrun's movie, filled with "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" references

The first thing that jumps out watching Jane Schoenbrun's movie I Saw the TV Glow (now in theatres), starring Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine, is that anyone who has been a fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer absolutely needs to see this film. Schoenbrun has crafted an alluring story that's filled with nods to the Sarah Michelle Gellar hit TV show that will be the most divine experience for the fandom.

If Buffy was never really your TV obsession, Schoenbrun still has you covered. This bewitching film uniquely captures that feeling you had, particularly in that coming-of-age time of your life, being completely taken by a story and its characters.

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in I Saw the TV  (VVS Films)
Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in I Saw the TV (VVS Films)

Set in an American suburb in the '90s, teenage Owen (Ian Foreman) becomes friends with an older student at his school, Maddy (Lundy-Paine), after he shares that he's fascinated with a show called The Pink Opaque.

Not dissimilar to Buffy, The Pink Opaque is about girls who are connected by this power, visually represented by a ghost tattoo on the back of their necks, with powers that enable them to fight evil.

With the show airing after Owen's bedtime, and his cruel father being against Owen watching a show "for girls," Owen's never actually watched the show, but Maddy is obsessed with it. Owen sneaks out to Maddy's house to watch The Pink Opaque, and eventually, when Owen is older (played by Smith), Maddy leaves VHS tapes for him at school with each week's episode.

Feeling particularly lonely in her life, specifically after a friend started telling students she's a lesbian, Maddy has a plan to run away, and she wants Owen to come with her. But Owen's scared to leave his family: His father, played by Fred Durst, is abusive, and his mother, played by Danielle Deadwyler, is dying.

Maddy unexpectedly returns years later, but we'll leave the circumstances of how and why for you to find out when you watch the film.

This image released by A24 shows writer-director Jane Schoenbrun, left, with actor Ian Foreman on the set of
This image released by A24 shows writer-director Jane Schoenbrun, left, with actor Ian Foreman on the set of "I Saw the TV Glow." (A24 via AP)

It may be tempting to think I Saw the TV Glow is another piece of entertainment that rests on this seemingly popular trend of nostalgic eye candy, but this film is so much more than that.

With layers of surrealism, Schoenbrun looks at how we can completely lose ourselves in the escapism of these pop culture fantasies, with characters who don't feel like there's a place for their true selves in the real world.

Schoenbrun has shared that in writing I Saw the TV Glow, they were reexamining the early stages of their gender transition process, using time spent watching shows like Buffy as a coping mechanism.

"I was repressing because it was unsafe to not repress them," Schoenbrun told Wired. "It’s a movie about being able to hide in fiction and how clinging to fiction in my earlier years was a balm. But the longer into adult life I got, that repression was bubbling up."

I Saw the TV Glow does require its audience to dive into this story and look for the details. With a unique visual palette, Schoenbrun uses elements from horror films, crafting metaphors for someone growing up and trying come into their own identity. The movie is strikingly built with specific details to visualize the feeling of gender dysphoria.

Aesthetically, I Saw the TV Glow has nostalgia all over it. It's a neon-coated feast, mixed with a little grunge for all the '90s lovers, with a perfectly fitting score, including Phoebe Bridgers and Sloppy Jane on the soundtrack. It completely sucks you into the mood of the film.

Smith and Lundy-Paine are both transfixing in their roles. They give incredibly nuanced and emotive performances, perfectly balancing the film's moments of stillness with the more intense beats of the story.

Schoenbrun leaves you with uncertainty in the film's brutally impactful finale, just like many of our favourite TV shows. It's tempting you to just want to watch the whole thing over again.