Movie Review | 'I Saw the TV Glow' 

click to enlarge Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in 'I Saw the TV Glow.'


Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in 'I Saw the TV Glow.'

Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun's films are experiences to live within. Sometimes — for better or worse — plot isn't always the most important aspect to the filmmaker; instead they aim to create a mood and atmosphere that will burrow underneath audiences' skin. Shoenbrun's newest movie, "I Saw the TV Glow," the follow-up to their acclaimed "We're All Going to the World's Fair," does just that. There are images in "I Saw the TV Glow" that will linger long after you have stumbled out of the theater in a dreamlike haze.

"We're All Going to the World's Fair," which was released in 2021, was an eerie debut but lacked a strong emotional grasp. Even so, it served its purpose as a calling card. "I Saw the TV Glow" presents a major step up for the filmmaker — larger budget and  scale, bigger ideas and the backing of distributor A24. While the movie can meander and get twisted in its overarching themes, there's a distinct emotional pull which is unshakeable.

There's a framework to Shoenbrun's movie, but their films gamble with not being heavily plotted. The narrative feels like Shoenbrun wrote an outline of what it would be about and allowed the actors to interpret their every thought and idea. The movie demonstrates a trust between filmmaker and actors and they give that trust to the audience to take away their own meaning of the movie. Not many directors are willing to take such a risk.

"I Saw the TV Glow" opens in 1996, where seventh grader Owen (Ian Foreman) meets ninth grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who is reading a series guide for a TV show called "The Pink Opaque." Maddy introduces Owen to the show, but Owen's mom (Danielle Deadwyler, who was criminally overlooked for an Oscar nomination for "Till") won't let him stay up late to watch the show. Owen devises a plan to tell his mom he is sleeping over a friend's house, but sneaks off to Maddy's to watch "The Pink Opaque." A life-altering friendship ensues.

The movie follows its characters over a long timeline, with an older Owen eventually played by Justice Smith in a shattering performance. His friendship with Maddy has made Owen feel less lonely in a big, lonely world and he clings to "The Pink Opaque" as the glue that binds the two social outcasts. When Maddy disappears, Owen must navigate a world without both his only friend and access to his favorite show.

To describe the plot of "I Saw the TV Glow" is to deeply simplify a complex movie. It brings back the simple days of appointment television, where if you didn't watch the moment it aired, you were on the outside looking in. The term 'nostalgia' has morphed into a dirty word, especially when discussing art, but Shoenbrun makes use of the movie's 90s nostalgia without feeling cloying or winking. In fact, their aim is to have the audience examine their own relationship with the things once loved, perhaps forgotten — and maybe longed for again.

But "I Saw the TV Glow" isn't just about transporting viewers back to the good ol' days of television. Shoenbrun, a trans filmmaker, uses their film as a tricky balance of specificity and universality. The theme of not fitting in, or not feeling comfortable in one's own skin, can be universal, but for those lucky enough it can be fleeting. "I Saw the TV Glow" shows Owen as a prisoner of his own being, and becoming his true self feels like a risk he can't take. He attempts to finds solace where he can, but too often for Owen, it's like water in the desert.

There is so much narrative and imagery to dissect within and take away from "I Saw the TV Glow," but the ending is bound to be a major talking point. Shoenbrun ends the movie in a way that will spark debates — purposefully disorienting and inviting an immediate reaction, even though it needs time to simmer. Between Shoenbrun and Smith, it's the perfect ending to a beguiling film.

Matt Passantino is a contributor to CITY.
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