Pretty much anyone who grew up watching television has a vivid memory of that one show that, for a time at least, wouldn’t let go of their young imaginations — characters observed and fretted over like close friends, haunting images captured and embellished over time in the mind, cliffhanger endings that hit like harsh personal betrayals. A show doesn’t have to be especially good to resonate like this, provided it finds its viewers at the right place and time; eventually, most of us move on, that hard cultural grip giving away to the forgiving affection of nostalgia. Heady and oneiric, Jane Schoenbrun’s “I Saw the TV Glow” asks what happens to those who don’t — following two dysfunctional devotees of a ’90s YA fantasy series as the show continues to live inside them (or perhaps the other way round) long after its departure from the airwaves.
This is both promising psychodrama fodder on its own terms, and of a piece with the particular fixations Schoenbrun has established across their small oeuvre thus far. Where their 2021 debut feature “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” delved into the isolating perils of hyper-online living, “I Saw the TV Glow” applies those anxieties to a more analog realm of media mind control — it’s not a screenlife exercise exactly, but the onscreen action gradually and playfully collapses boundaries between what is watched and what is lived. Meanwhile, the film’s legibility as an allegory for transgender self-realization will vary among viewers, depending on the individual experience and baggage brought to it.
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As such, “I Saw the TV Glow” aims to be embraced as selectively but intensely by a core cult audience as the shoddy, imaginary TV show presented within it: “The Pink Opaque,” a teen monster-fighting adventure that balances “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”-style genre irony with Lynchian nightmare imagery, all titled after a Cocteau Twins compilation album, which gives you an approximate idea of Schoenbrun’s high-and-low grab-bag of cultural reference points. Distributor A24 ought to make a virtue of those niche qualities when it releases this hard-to-classify item — not exactly horror, but still aptly placed in Sundance’s Midnight strand — later this year.
Though Schoenbrun realizes “The Pink Opaque” on screen in suitably glitchy, VHS-level visual terms — a clear break from the iridescent neon depths of Eric Yue’s 35mm lensing, though that choice likewise situates the film in a pre-digital context — they’re not especially interested in on-point pastiche. The show we see resembles more an early-hours pizza dream of transitional Nickelodeon fare than anything that might really have aired in the ’90s, but since we’re viewing it through the porous gaze of sensitive, unworldly teen Owen (played first by Ian Foreman, then by Justice Smith), it may already be distorted by his nervously active imagination. Such viewing is forbidden at home; it comes to him instead via VHS tapes shared by Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a prickly loner two years his senior, who is loath to make friends but recognizes a fellow cultist when she sees one.
The two have little in common but a place on the high-school fringes. Maddy is gay and apparently nonbinary (even if the era didn’t yet have standard parlance for it), which means she knows herself a bit better than the mixed-race, socially apprehensive Owen, who hasn’t yet determined an identity for himself at all. For her, “The Pink Opaque” serves as a mirror for her defiantly held differences; for him, it simply fills a void, giving him one thing to focus on in an otherwise elusive adolescence. The show thus consumes them in different ways, from the outside in and the inside out — a disparity that becomes apparent when, some time after its network cancellation, Maddy vanishes for years on end, while Owen is left to negotiate adulthood with only his now-dated fandom to define and support him.
This character-centered setup is where “I Saw the TV Glow” is most affecting, grounded by the tense, tacit bond between two highly guarded people — and given an electric jolt by Lundy-Paine’s fragile, volatile performance as someone certain there’s no accepting place for them outside the rectangular confines of the TV set. But as the film enters its own wormhole of fragmented reality and elasticated time and space, it becomes rather less compelling at a human level, ceding its coming-of-age narrative to an arresting maelstrom of sound and image, conducted by Schoenbrun with channel-hopping verve but increasingly wayward control.
There’s little of the taut, creeping tension and tight formal design here that defined “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” here, which is at least partly by design: “I Saw the TV Glow” aims to spill and thrash and explode in the manner of a restless, nascent identity asserting itself beyond conformist social standards. Yet the abrasive techniques employed here — a soundtrack that oscillates between whispery quiet and punkish cacophony, hypnotically saturated compositions aggressively disrupted by TV static — can feel calculated and repetitive over the course of a somehow lengthy-feeling 100 minutes.
As characters break the fourth wall, sometimes literally smashing screens into glassy shards, the film risks losing its own witty sense of the liminal border between life actively lived and life passively viewed, in favor of a more generically frenzied surrealism. Yet if proceedings dip into derivative territory — a grisly finale, in particular, cribs from the likes of “Donnie Darko” and “Videodrome” — that only proves Schoenbrun’s point that we are what we watch: For many viewers finding it at just the right fragile, formative point in their lives, “I Saw the TV Glow” will launch countless fevered, questioning flights of imagination.
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