Tender yet rageful, quiet yet deafening, intimate yet expansive, Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow is a towering achievement of total artistic freedom, the kind of work where certain images will be eternally burned into your mind and the feelings it exudes will linger far after the credits roll. Expanding the aura of loneliness from We’re All Going to the World’s Fair into a vastly more ambitious, layered canvas, Schoenbrun’s third feature tells the story of Owen, played early on by Ian Foreman and later by Justice Smith in a revelatory performance. Following the isolated journey of questioning his identity through childhood and adulthood, we witness his special infatuation with a late-night TV show and the ineradicable bond it creates with another lonely soul, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine). The deeply expressive, imaginative ways in which Schoenbrun is able to articulate one’s struggle with identity is nothing short of staggering. This may not be a horror film in the conventional sense––in fact, every directorial decision assertively refutes convention––but I Saw the TV Glow emphatically argues nothing is more terrifying than being trapped in a body you don’t desire and having no words to properly express the feeling.

Utterly hypnotic in rhythm from its very first scenes, we hear a haunting motif that will return: Yeule’s cover of Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” as Owen glides underneath a rainbow elementary school parachute. It’s a transfixing moment of color and sound and sets the stage as we’re whisked into this 1996-set world. We quickly learn of Owen’s fascination with a piece of media he’s never actually seen: The Pink Opaque, a YA sci-fi show that airs at 10:30pm on Saturdays and harbors a resemblance to the likes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and The Secret World of Alex Mack. Featuring Tara (Lindsay Jordan of Snail Mail, also contributing to the film’s lush, exquisite soundtrack) and Isabel (Helena Howard), the “monster-of-the-week” show follows the two as campgoers who realize they have special powers to fight the big bad, Mr. Melancholy. What could seem cheesy on the surface is sold by Schoenbrun––both the in-show sequences and Owen and Maddy’s passion––with such reverence that the viewer instantly joins in the obsession. The worlds of their outcast reality and ethereal fantasy of the show start to converge. The Pink Opaque’s characters become ciphers for all that our protagonists can’t do in real life. The show’s neon-pink, TV-glow blues, and vibrant purple spill into every corner of Owen’s life, and the narrative evolves to wholly unexpected, startling places.

Even if you didn’t have a specific obsession with this kind of television show, I Saw the TV Glow will speak to anyone who has a deep bond with any artistic medium––a certain film, show, book. What could define your entire personality in those formative years when you’re still finding your own can differ so greatly upon finding it decades later. What was once intoxicating, special, and seemed made solely for you in that moment can resonate as a cheap, for-kids-only amusement. These harsh truths are reflected through Owen’s journey, gleaning from Maddy about pursuing what you desire. Yet he can’t bring himself to discuss it, much less act on his senses. He knows something is wrong––that the life he’s living and the body he has isn’t what he desires––but doesn’t have the proper words to articulate, leaving Schoenbrun to eloquently communicate these pent-up feelings through bold choices.

As the story expands in scope, Schoenbrun allegorically represents what it looks like to embrace transness versus the horrors of ignoring your identity. Much is asked of Smith and Lundy-Paine to convey these ideas, both of whom go above and beyond. Smith brings profound pain, sadness, and an astonishing physical transformation, while Lundy-Paine’s more mysterious demeanor finally explodes when embracing their identity during an all-timer monologue. As misused as the term “Lynchian” often is, Schoenbrun deeply understands what makes the director’s work so haunting. It’s not just spooky lighting, peculiar characters, and strange plotting. There’s an all-consuming, soul-churning scream into the void when everything you know about reality is irrevocably shifting beneath your feet. Like Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast, another film opening in the U.S. this year, I Saw the TV Glow acutely understands these near-indescribable feelings and the result digs right to the heart in profoundly unsettling ways. (The Lynch inspiration is also carried through when we get a spin on the Twin Peaks Roadhouse, with utterly captivating musical performance in consonance with both the wonder and rage of our characters’ journeys.)

As time marches on and Owen’s torment manifests in varying ways, the comfort of The Pink Opaque becomes a distant memory, even a point of further pain. In an age where nostalgia seems to be the quickest way for any media conglomerate to make a buck, it’s a statement as subversive as the form on display. Though full of bone-chilling sequences that approach the unexplainable yet are filled with immense ache, none are as haunting as the film’s closing moments of true isolation: a plea to make a human connection by asking for forgiveness and no one around you even cares to recognize your presence. 

It’s only been a few days since I’ve seen I Saw the TV Glow, but as soon as the credits hit, I wanted to rewind the tape and hit play again. It’s a sensation that has only lingered since. Like the characters’ compulsion with The Pink Opaqe, I can feel my obsession growing. In capturing the trans experience with language that only cinema can convey, Schoenbrun has crafted one of the most original, evocative, adventurous films of this decade.

I Saw the TV Glow premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by A24.

Grade: A

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