‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review – A Personal Portrait of Dysphoria and Surreal Horror

Writer/Director Jane Schoenbrun’s feature debut, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, captured the isolating nature of online culture via creepypasta horror through non-narrative, visual storytelling. Schoenbrun continues that core theme of dysphoria in their sophomore effort, I Saw the TV Glow, now armed with a bigger budget that allows the filmmaker to get even more personal while evolving their voice and visual style to an intoxicating degree. I Saw the TV Glow offers a layered and authentic portrait of identity, wrapped in ’90s nostalgia and surreal imagery that embeds itself deep into your psyche.

I Saw the TV Glow charts the life of Owen (Justice Smith) over multiple decades, initially introduced as an early teen (Ian Foreman) in 1996. Owen is a dysphoric and friendless outcast until he bumps into a slightly older student and fellow outcast, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), at his high school. The pair quickly bond over the young adult supernatural series “The Pink Opaque,” which follows Tara (Lindsey Jordan) and Isabel (Helena Howard) as they fight monsters of the week with their psychic bond, a clear cross between “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

The anthology horror series takes over their lives, becoming an obsessive solace from their turbulent home lives. That’s complicated by Owen’s strict dad (an unrecognizable Fred Durst) and distracted, ailing mom (Danielle Deadwyler). As Owen and Maddy struggle to find their place in the world and their identity, “The Pink Opaque” begins to blur the lines of reality.

While not as narratively challenging as Schoenbrun’s debut, I Saw the TV Glow operates on emotion and visual storytelling over a conventional narrative. It heightens the effectiveness of the eerie, potent imagery that pervades Owen’s life, and it showcases Shoenbrun’s incredible eye for framing and composition. The baddies from “The Pink Opaque” bleed over into the real world like a lucid nightmare. Schoenbrun utilizes a variety of techniques, textures, and influences to capture the fictional series’ monsters here, from a Georges Méliès by way of Smashing Pumpkins stop-motion moon villain, Mr. Melancholy, to a nightmarish ice cream truck engulfed in vibrant neon smoke.

I Saw the TV Glow trailer

It’s a ’90s kid fever dream of a movie. A familiar yet distant realm where Fruitopia vending machines fill the school cafeteria. Where familiar ’90s pop culture faces like Durst and Buffy alum Amber Benson, briefly appearing as another student’s mom, appear to capture the decade’s vibe further. Where the crackling haze of VHS seeps over on screen, not just with the tapes that Maddy dutifully makes for Owen but also in the villains who escape from their fictional realm. It not only creates a specificity for Schoenbrun’s deeply personal examination but a relatable touchstone of youth- a period where we often form our identities based on our pop culture obsessions and cling to them like lifeboats in tempestuous waters.

Through Owen and Maddy, Schoenbrun fearlessly gets even more personal. Maddy, whose rigid body language matches gritted, angry bursts of speech and eye contact avoidance, longs to escape the oppressive suburbs. Owen’s inner struggles are even more complicated as an asexual trapped for decades by societal expectations and paralyzing fear from taking the next step toward self-actualization. Smith nails Owen’s dissociative persona, a detached loner who buries their true self so deeply as they drift through a surreal world. But it’s Lundy-Paine’s raw turn as Maddy that nearly steals the film, delivering a soul-baring performance. Their glimpses of vulnerability are heartrending, compounded by pleading monologues delivered with poignant authenticity.

Schoenbrun delivers a singular vision of arthouse horror that entrances for its fevered dream style and insanely cool imagery. I Saw the TV Glow is relatable for any ’90s kid who ever felt like an outsider and whose closest friends were the ones found on TV. There’s something rare and special about a filmmaker so willing to get this personal and to do so with such a confident grasp of visual storytelling. More than just an assured piece of arthouse horror surrealism, it’s a stunning and bittersweet reminder that you’re not alone, fictional friends or otherwise.

I Saw the TV Glow is now playing in select theaters.

Editor’s Note: This Sundance review was originally published on January 21, 2024.

4 out of 5 skulls

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