‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Invites Self-Discovery

“I Saw the TV Glow” traces the decade-long friendship between two introverts and their love for television.

“I Saw the TV Glow” is a slow-burn of sensitivity and surrealism.

Written and Directed by Jane Schoenbrun, “I Saw the TV Glow” traces the decade-long friendship between two introverts and their haunting love for television.

Owen and Maddy first befriend one another over a shared passion for “The Pink Opaque,” a supernatural teen-drama. As the two view the monster-of-the week spectacle, their intense devotion to the show gradually blurs the lines between reality and fiction. 

Billed as a horror/drama “I Saw the TV Glow” dips into dread with an artistic, psychological flair. The film harbors a subdued yet unsettling atmosphere to elevate its introspective premise. Don’t expect typical thrills or emotional horror similar to “Hereditary” or “Midsommar” — “I Saw the TV Glow” is first and foremost a drama.

Schoenbrun (“We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” “Big Brother Volcano”) shines color upon downcast characters. The film displays heavy pinks and muted neons, infusing a vibrancy to its gentle narrative.

Two kids finding TV more enrapturing than reality is personal for Schoenbrun, a trans woman formerly obsessed with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The director describes Owen and Maddy’s isolated love for “The Pink Opaque” as a means to escape gender dysphoria. 

“You can’t really love someone safely when you’re not yourself, in such an intense way as like gender repression or dysphoria,” Schoenbrun said regarding love. “It all went into television. I could see it but it couldn’t see me.”

The duo’s personal confusion comes in part from ostracization. With few friends and family, Owen and Maddy turn towards TV to find safety, another facet of the director’s life.

“I wrote this film while I was in the early stages of physical transition and getting estranged from my family,” Schoenbrun said. “My life was in absolute, terrifying but also exciting, disarray and I just tried to express how that felt.”

As Owen, Justice Smith gives a somber performance clouded in childishness. Smith (“Sharper,” “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”) portrays Owen as a timid fan of fiction, never able to grow up due to a tragic inability to accept themselves.

Bridgette Lundy-Paine plays the opposite to Owen as the vocally angst-ridden Maddy. Lundy-Paine (“The Glass Castle,” “Bill & Ted Face the Music”) furiously portrays the rebel, delivering monologues on media’s influence on personal identity and the specific imprint of “The Pink Opaque.”

“The Pink Opaque” isn’t just a “Buffy” surrogate, but is also a vehicle for maturity. A fan of the show when first introduced, Maddy is played at all ages by Lundy-Paine. Owen however, is first seen at age 12, with Smith acting thereafter viewing the teen-drama.

With both actors nearing 30, their portrayals of early-teens illustrate how “Buffy” or “The Pink Opaque” become adolescent touchstones and forced mature introspection. The show’s analogue dreaminess provides an outlet for the two to explore themselves. Owen and Maddy see themselves in the show’s protagonists — slowly starting to believe they’re one in the same.

For all the inventiveness and queer subtext, “I Saw the TV Glow” struggles to stay earnest. Dialogue is stilted or overly vague and “The Pink Opaque” is recited so often it loses meaning.

The film’s best moments are when reality and fiction intertwine, but they’re so few and far-between the 100-minute runtime feels twice as long.

“I Saw the TV Glow” may feel static to some but there’s no denying its clear passion, relevance and inventive storytelling.

“I’m not trying to make movies for people who need to be told something is trans,” Schoenbrun said. “I’m making movies for trans people, and anyone else who enjoys it — that’s cool too.”

“I Saw the TV Glow” comes to theaters May 17.

Featured image courtesy of A24

Brendan Parr

Brendan Parr

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