5 out of 5 stars

Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow is, with absolutely zero hyperbole, a generation-defining maverick achievement. Even for a filmmaker who’s briskly exploded onto the scene as one of the most exciting emerging voices in modern American cinema, I Saw the TV Glow is a breathtakingly stark evolution of Schoenbrun’s style and an eviscerating rupture to the industry’s established norms. In a cinematic landscape dominated by cisnormative tales and aesthetics, Schoenbrun’s filmography—from the Slenderman-fandom documentary A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018) to the screen-tale urban legend which is We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)—is a sincere breath of fresh air, honing in on the overstimulating anxieties of the current generation’s queerness and place in the modern era.

In two feature films alone, Schoenbrun’s examinations of how media shapes and redefines us have been swiftly established as at once distinctly harrowing and melancholic. From a clinical examination of the cult communities surrounding Slenderman to the “World’s Fair” roleplaying game that ambiguously alters its participants, the power of these films is distinct, subtly residing in their reframing of a cerebral alteration to our minds into something disturbingly physical and tangible. That said, the physicality of such a change, is also uniquely queer in a way that gets elucidated textually and subtextually. The foundation here is inextricable; it’s just as important to examine the surface of Schoenbrun’s films as well as the trans narrative that resides underneath. As a trans-non-binary filmmaker, Schoenbrun’s eye for the symbolic vernacular of dysphoria and gender transition is so potent that it’s genuinely disruptive for a filmmaker dealing so heavily with such themes to become so close to the mainstream.

Afforded the budget of an A24 mainstage, with near-free rein to do whatever they please, Schoenbrun has defied the complacency that can come with such elevation. They’ve completely let loose to earth-shattering effect. I Saw the TV Glow initially presents itself as a distinct series of things at once: a weaponisation of nostalgia, an awakening from the isolation of suburbia, a homage to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), and so on. Yet, all of this violently cracks open to eventually unleash a jaw-slackening tour de force – an abjectly gut-wrenching series of surreal, punishing images and noises that embody the agony of trans dysphoria so fully it left me completely shaken by its existentially disembowelling conclusion.

Schoenbrun has taken the trans subtext of their previous works and brought it directly to the forefront, albeit kept behind a veil of narrative symbolism. In doing so, they’ve provided something savagely revelatory about the modern form of self-denial, the media’s connection with trans identities, and the experience of feeling suffocated by a life unlived as opportunities dwindle. If their previous films drew their power from the lingering cerebral nature of ambiguity and the horror subtly lurking beneath the surface, Schoenbrun finally throws open the coffin here to display that horror in all its existentially horrifying, near-suicidal morbidity. Through this, I Saw the TV Glow finally delivers the aesthetic and narrative wake-up call that this modern era of queer and trans cinema has desperately needed—a work to which future films that follow in its wake will be indebted for decades to come.

It’s 1996. Seventh-grader Owen (Ian Foreman) finds himself adrift in the lonely quietude of his suburban neighbourhood. Repressed into withdrawal by his well-meaning but infantilizing mother, Brenda (Danielle Deadwyler), and his barely-speaking, towering shadow of a father, Frank (Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst), Owen yearns for connection.

A chance encounter on election day throws Owen a lifeline. He meets Maddy (Brigitte Lundy-Paine), a similarly ostracized ninth-grader with a well-established obsession with a TV show called The Pink Opaque. Despite being broadcast on a young adult network, Maddy insists, “it’s way too scary for most kids.” Packed with lore and spanning multiple seasons, the show’s sheer volume initially intimidates Owen.

With echoes of Buffy the Vampire SlayerThe Pink Opaque follows the tales of Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Snail Mail wunderkind Lindsey Jordan), two teenage girls connected on a psychic plane. Together, they must face off against monsters-of-the-week dispatched by their primary adversary, Mr Melancholy (Emma Portner).

The friendship that Maddy and Owen forge as a result of their shared adoration for The Pink Opaque strengthens their bond throughout the show’s airing. It’s also completely distinct from the online methods of connection that Schoenbrun establishes for her characters in World’s Fair.

The late-1990s setting of the film is no coincidence, offering new horizons for Schoenbrun’s enquiries. It’s a time in US history beset by the neo-liberal deceptions of the Clinton administration, and steeped in the isolation fostered by suburbia’s hush-hush attitude to the Pax Americana. All of this silently drives out and represses those living on America’s social fringes, forced to exist without the soon-to-be-ubiquitous refuge of a monitor, a keyboard, and a Wi-Fi connection.

But Schoenbrun’s longstanding fascination with media obsession remains prominent here. It’s just that it’s bound by the restrictions of late-night Saturday broadcasts, episode guides, and static permeating every corner of a 4:3 aspect ratio. There’s a real testament to the art and production team’s skill that not only is this film’s adherence to nostalgia as reverent as others set in the same era, but also that Schoenbrun then subverts it with the frigidity of loneliness, in pure defiance of the comfort we seek in familiar reminders of the past.

For at least the remainder of TV Glow’s first half, Schoenbrun exercises great restraint and patience, allowing her characters to become further immersed in the world of The Pink Opaque. In a sequence underpinned by an original track by pop artist Caroline Polachek, we watch Owen (now played by Justice Smith from 1998 onwards) walk through the hallways of his high school. Maddy’s handwriting is scrawled and then erased from the screen as she continues to offer him tapes of The Pink Opaque’s latest episodes after Brenda forbids him from staying up so late to watch the show. A routine becomes established, providing Owen with a sense of comfort and companionship that he likely hadn’t previously recognised as missing from his life.

As Brenda’s illness becomes terminal, and Frank’s menace recedes no less, Owen continues to consume the show ravenously, while noticing that Maddy is becoming increasingly moved by it in ways he finds increasingly unusual. Something is steadily awakening within her—it wasn’t long ago that she was claiming the show “feels more real than real life.” Now, the yearning for that reality seems to be catching up with her with ever-growing urgency.

Maddy’s family life is deeply unstable. Her father is physically abusive, and her queer identity as a lesbian becomes a further source of isolation when a classmate promptly outs her. (Owen, less convinced about his own sexuality, responds graphically to Maddy’s question about who he likes, using imagery reminiscent of both burial and disembowelment.) Maddy tells Owen she plans to leave town and invites him to come with her. However, he’s too scared and intimidated by the prospect of uprooting his life to join her. In an almost provocative gesture, Maddy draws on Owen’s back the pink ghost symbol engraved on Isabel and Tara’s necks—a symbol that seems to awaken new dimensions of his self, yet which he promptly scrubs off the very next morning.

As time passes, however, Maddy and Owen are each forced to confront a massive revelation concerning The Pink Opaque—one that Owen, once again, refuses to believe at face value. However, a tape Maddy left behind for Owen clarifies a major question he’s always had about his own identity in a profoundly disturbing way. From that point onwards, I Saw the TV Glow plunges headfirst into a dysphoric nightmare with a soul-shakingly strong sense of purpose.

There’s a moment during the sequence in which Owen walks through the halls of his high school where a sign briefly comes into view as he turns a corner. Stapled on top of red paper are round-fronted, all-caps letters arranged in the phrase “PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY”—words typically plastered all over most high school gyms, but which takes on a substantively heavier connotation when considering TV Glow’s trans angle. Long have cis viewers paid attention to the agony of dysphoria through the distance offered by tables of bleak statistics and columns upon columns of horrific news stories. But the major strength of TV Glow is in how it intuitively understands, and then promptly depicts, the noxious poison of the blue pill as a soul-searingly embodied experience. Is the “weakness” the repression that escapes and subsides when one makes the courageous yet profoundly painful leap of transition? Or will the pain consume and weaken you first, well before the chance to take on that courage emerges? Whatever the case, the body is at stake, and with it, every ounce of one’s sense of self.

Throughout I Saw the TV Glow, Owen grapples with the dilemma of remaining in the status quo offered by his isolating suburban life, or taking a risk with Maddy to escape it all. Schoenbrun’s most insightful elements in this film are decidedly a double-edged sword. The film is equally a piercing exploration of what it truly means to be seen by a piece of media, and an assaultive experience of what unfolds when that visibility brings self-confrontation and the searing agony of regret. Even within a recent influx of films often defined by themes of lost potential—including Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), All of Us Strangers (2023), and The Beast (2023)—Schoenbrun’s continued examination of obsessions with new-millennium media and queerness, imbued with such openly emotional insight, makes their film a genuine standout among these early-decade progenitors.

While The Pink Opaque might not be as prominent a creature feature as some viewers might have anticipated, what is present in the film serves as both an effective pastiche and homage to the shows that inspired it. Its use of relatively cheesy dialogue, outdated practical effects, and VCR static all establish the fact that, even beyond the apparent silliness of these monster-of-the-week series, there’s still a wealth of potential for genuine surrealism and sincerity. This, understandably, allows viewers like Maddy and Owen to latch onto it so powerfully.

One moment, you’re treated to rather ridiculous font choices and opening lines during the show’s opening credits. The very next, you’re confronted by the grotesque image of an ice cream man whose half-melted features completely sell the idea that the youngest of viewers could hardly stomach such a thorough perversion of this universally innocent treat. The horror, then, comes from how a show chock-full of images that entice morbid curiosity gradually morphs into something completely alien. The midpoint reveal of the show’s most antagonistic creature is so violently unsettling and skin-crawling that it momentarily shatters the illusion of refuge and perverse comfort this show was supposed to be.

When that rupture arrives, its characters become even more entangled within its implications—not quite for the film’s narrative, but rather for their own sense of self. Justice Smith’s performance begins as relatively unassuming and then steadily morphs into something monstrously tragic. Owen’s dissociation from his own life is so literal that the time jumps throughout the film grow ever more chasmic by the minute, and he’s often found literally narrating the course of his own life directly to the screen. (This narration is also something that Maddie manages to identify for him, as another sign that something has gone fundamentally wrong with the way he’s experiencing life and his own sense of self.) And yet, once the egg starts to crack, the physicality of Owen’s desperation to cling to a better life, along with his withering, terrified hesitancy to lose himself, becomes so utterly all-encompassing that it becomes genuinely difficult to watch and hear Owen’s increasing madness as the film spirals onward.

At the opposite end of TV Glow’s spectrum of change lies Maddy. Their intermittent disappearances only seem to amplify the near-complete alteration of character by the time their involvement in the world of The Pink Opaque approaches the self-sacrificing. There’s a monologue that Lundy-Paine (who is also non-binary) delivers at a pivotal point with breathtaking intensity. Cinematographer Eric K. Yue’s camera closes in on them, capturing a moment that compounds upon a harrowing revelation unearthed only minutes before. In that very instant, the purposeful stiltedness of Maddy’s earlier, more reticent self reveals something drastically different, more physical and charged with conviction. It’s a display that forces us to witness, for just a split second, a vision of what Owen’s life could be if he chooses to break through the isolating cocoon he’s spun for himself.

Ultimately, the overt layers of transness woven throughout TV Glow’s surreal narrative allow Schoenbrun to directly confront one of the most frightening realities of trans identities: the complete uprooting of one’s existing life, in pursuit of another that will allow them to flourish, inevitably brings with it an intense degree of pain and displacement. However, with I Saw the TV Glow, Schoenbrun speaks from a position of having already emerged from their proverbial cocoon. They demonstrate a terrifying understanding of what it’s like to be trapped inside one, and how much demonstrably more horrific that pain is compared to the euphoria that can counter that pain during and after transition.

Even without any explicitly transgender characters woven into its narrative, I Saw the TV Glow establishes a unique precedent. While labels like Lynchian and Cronenbergian can certainly capture aspects of its aesthetic, Schoenbrun has somehow crafted a piece of mainstream-adjacent transgender art that acts as a powerful siren call. In a modern era where cultural awareness of transgender identities has reached an unprecedented peak, here is a desperate, wailing plea for a collective awakening to our true selves, a plea whose sheer intensity will resonate in the ears of all who hear it long after the film is over. Schoenbrun warns us that the cost of denying this awakening will be devastating, ruining one far greater than any of the pain endured in accepting it. With I Saw the TV Glow, it’s through the language, vernacular, and artistry employed that Schoenbrun warns us, and this very use of these elements might well solidify the film’s place as a seminal, canonical work. This is, quite simply, a revolution—one that begins televised and ends embodied. “There is still time.”

USA | 2024 | 100 MINUTES | 1.85:1 • 4:3 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Jane Schoenbrun.
starring: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Lindsey Jordan, Danielle Deadwyler, Fred Durst, Connor O’Malley & Emma Portner.