I Saw the TV Glow Review | Nitrate Nostalgia

by Andrew Parker

Heartfelt and haunting in precisely equal measure, I Saw the TV Glow is a one of a kind film. Eerie, but never an outright horror film, this latest effort from impressive up and coming filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun (We’re All Going to the World’s Fair) gets under the viewer’s skin and goes straight for the heart and mind rather than spine and adrenaline glands. Nostalgic, but mournful and contemplative, I Saw the TV Glow is the type of film that can’t be easily classified or placed inside a convenient box. It’s also staunchly unafraid of alienating the viewer with Schoenbrun’s tremendously large filmmaking swings because that very feeling of being on the outside looking inward is the lynchpin around which everything else revolves here. Lots of people who see I Saw the TV Glow might not know exactly what to make of it by the end, but Schoenbrun’s latest isn’t about tidy conclusions or resolved feelings of inadequacy and emptiness. It’s all about how it hits you. And I Saw the TV Glow hits harder than any other film so far this year.

Sometime in the late 1990s, shy seventh grader Owen (Ian Foreman) notices ninth grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) reading all alone in the school cafeteria. They’re religiously poring over every word of the official episode guide of a young adult horror mythology series known as The Pink Opaque, in which a pair of teenage besties with a psychic bond do battle with various villains of the week and an evil entity inside the moon known only as Mr. Melancholy. Owen’s loving mother (Danielle Deadwyler) and stern father (Fred Durst) won’t let him stay up late enough to watch the show, so he tries to get closer to Maddy in a bid to see what all the fuss is about. Through their love for the show and the inherent drama in their personal lives, teenage Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy strengthen their wholly platonic friendship. Then one day, the show is suddenly cancelled, and Maddy has disappeared without a trace. Years later, and without warning, Maddy returns into Owen’s life, which only raises further questions as to what might’ve happened.

Schoenbrun isn’t big on answers as a writer-director, but like the best makers of outsider art, they also don’t revel in rubbing the viewer’s face in needless ambiguity. I Saw the TV Glow is one of the best examples of a film where what the viewer brings to the experience will dictate what they feel on the way out. There’s a wealth of information, symbolism, and subtext that Schoenbrun gives to the viewer, and like a mental arts and crafts project, it’s up to the individual to figure out what they’re going to make. 

If one wants to read I Saw the TV Glow as a treatise on the nature of sexual and personal identity, they can go right ahead. If they think it’s an examination of the ways popular culture can shape our feelings and attitudes during various periods of life, that’s a perfectly reasonable reading. It could be about platonic attraction, unspoken romantic feelings, romanticizing things that aren’t real, trauma coping mechanisms, varying degrees of loss and how those experiences differ, feeling stuck in a dead end town, being deadly afraid of becoming one’s parents. Or it could be about nothing more than experience itself or unspoken existential dread. Heck, Schoenbrun’s work is so confident that they would probably not dismiss a critic that thinks the entire thing is pure nonsense. There isn’t going to be a test on I Saw the TV Glow at the end, and there are no right or wrong answers. It’s as much an invitation to think and reflect as it is a movie.

As with their previous film, which also examined the line between popular culture and how it frames identity, Schoenbrun shows a deft understanding of young adult life and a wide range of experiences and feelings. While it first appears as if Owen and Maddy are kindred spirits, Schoenbrun always finds ways of illustrating how their dispositions are more aligned than their actual experiences as people. Again, one could psychoanalyze these characters to death and create assumptions about who they are, but there’s more merit in simply following along with them and becoming immersed in their lives. I Saw the TV Glow eloquently and elegantly illustrates awkwardness and alienation without resorting to cheap shortcuts. It probably helps if the viewer has felt like Owen or Maddy at points in their lives (and I know I certainly have), but anyone willing to look at I Saw the TV Glow from an empathetic perspective will likely be floored by what they discover.

The way Schoenbrun marries striking, colourful, dreamlike imagery with a reasoned, deep sound mix and effective soundtrack is nothing short of symphonic, rising to dizzying heights or nerve jangling lows depending on what the occasion calls for. In their hands, moments as simple as a chance encounter at a grocery store, a quick chat on the bleachers, or trying to get through a thankless shift at a movie theatre take on an epic sort of scope thanks to Schoenbrun’s attention to fine details. Even an extended trip where Maddy and Owen meet inside a music club to discuss recent events (which also functions as probably the best homage to Twin Peaks I’ve ever seen) rises above feeling like a music video plunked into the middle of a narrative because Schoenbrun has thought so clearly and carefully about what the scene should convey to the audience.

But even though I Saw the TV Glow throws a lot at the audience, it never tells them how to feel, because that’s something the main characters would never want to be told themselves. For their part in the collaborative process, Paine and Smith are able to key into Schoenbrun’s wavelength perfectly. Paine portrays Maddy as a loner by design; maybe a bit selfish, but not an altogether uncaring person. Maddy meets people on their own terms, and as such never makes friends easily. That’s reflected by Smith’s tremendous work as someone eager to make friends, but without the social capabilities to do so. The chemistry between Paine and Smith achingly depicts people who find commonality in being misunderstood. Their friendship and personal lives are tragic in some ways, but when one stops to think about it, Maddy and Owen’s lives are quite common and true to life outside of a narrative filled with heightened visuals and atmosphere. Paine and Smith play things down to earth, while Schoenbrun visually illustrates the chaos that exists behind those big feelings.

Like a beloved television series going out on an unresolved cliffhanger, I Saw the TV Glow will leave viewers pondering about where things go from the end point and what it all could mean. There’s a mystery to be unravelled, and the film itself is always posing “what if” questions, but it’s that sense of feeling untethered that gives life a greater meaning. Although the atmosphere is foreboding at times, Schoenbrun shows through their characters that it’s perfectly normal to feel uneasy. It’s also perfectly fine if you don’t have it all figured out, no matter what your age is. I Saw the TV Glow is a powerful work because it makes the viewer feel like they’re aren’t alone in a world where fiction sometimes makes a lot more sense than reality. It asks a lot of the viewer, but if they’re willing to engage, I Saw the TV Glow is nothing short of mind expanding. Just don’t expect the horror movie it’s being marketed as. This is so much more than that, and the film itself is brilliantly undefinable.

I Saw the TV Glow opens in select Canadian cities, including at TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, starting Friday, May 17, 2024.

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