'I Saw the TV Glow' - Glow, Flicker, and Fade

“I Saw the TV Glow” via IMDb.

Trans filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun hit it big in 2022 with their low-budget psychological horror movie debut, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair.” It was a movie that wore its demographic-specific exclusivity like a badge of honor. In other words, if you weren’t into role-playing games, you might find yourself shivering out in the cold.

Working with a more substantial budget, Schoenberg’s new movie “I Saw the TV Glow” (A24) puts the trans allegory front and center, instead of couching it in metaphors. Anyone who was bullied or considered an outsider while in school may find something to relate to in the characters of Maddy (enby actor Brigette Lundy-Paine), who “likes girls,” and Owen (queer actor Justice Smith), who “likes TV shows.” 

Before young eyes were glued to handheld devices, screen time meant TV, and Owen and Maddy share an obsession with a cheesy horror series called “The Pink Opaque” (think an extremely, low budget “Buffy”) in which BFFs Isabel and Tara fight to keep the world safe from the insidious Mr. Melancholy. The bonding experience benefits both adolescents as escapism from their lousy suburban lives, in which Owen is dealing with his mother’s cancer diagnosis and Maddy has an abusive father who once broke her nose.

When Maddy, who had been planning to run away, ultimately disappears without a trace shortly before Owen’s mother succumbs to her illness, we discover that Owen is the one with a stronger grip on reality. At one point, he tells her that it’s “not the midnight realm, just the suburbs.” In this way, “I Saw the TV Glow” succeeds in making a serious statement about mental health. However, when Maddy suddenly reappears a few years later, the impact on Owen’s well-being is practically overwhelming. Her lengthy monologue about her disappearance and its connection to “The Pink Opaque” is as riveting as it is confusing.

Spanning a period of more than 30 years, there are moments when “I Saw the TV Glow” feels like it’s at least 30 years long; the time-jumps are that awkward. However, both Smith and Lundy-Paine are fully committed to their characters, and their performances, help to ground the otherwise spacey story. 

Here’s another way to think about the movie. You didn’t have to be resurrected from the dead to appreciate the brilliance of Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things.” Whereas, “I Saw the TV Glow” almost seems to go out of its way to intentionally exclude a segment of viewers. That’s Schoenbrun’s loss. 

Rating: C-


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