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‘I Saw the TV Glow’ (review)

If you were one of the brave preteen souls who dared to stay up on a Saturday after laughing through classics like All That, Roundhouse, and The Secret World of Alex Mack, you were rewarded with the occasionally nightmare-inducing Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Jane Schoenbrun’s sophomore feature I Saw the TV Glow pulls from that unsettled creepiness that made the last entry in the SNICK lineup so valuable to its young audience. It brings up themes of belonging, ostracization, unlikely friendships, and the haunting feeling when you as a teenager know more about the reality (or perception) of the world around you than the adults in your sphere.

This is a film for the confident conspiracy theorist.

There’s a fuzziness throughout that plays with how solid everything feels. Shots are hazy, glowing, and tinged with neon. It makes everything seem like a retelling even when our reluctant protagonist Owen (Justice Smith) isn’t narrating.

When we meet a young Owen on election night in 1996, accompanying his mom to vote at his high school, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to be there. Or really anywhere. As he waits for his mother Owen tries half-heartedly to talk to Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a slightly older, definitely cooler fellow outcast at his high school, who brushes him off quickly.

But they soon connect over their interest in the TV series “The Pink Opaque”, forming a quick but intense bond as only teen outcasts that find a similar soul can.

The show itself is a teen horror anthology about two girls who fight supernatural villains with their psychic connection after meeting only once in person. With gory practical effects and trippy visuals, every clip from the faux show could’ve been pulled from one of the darker episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, or even Buffy. While some are in present day HD, most of the surreal and disconcerting shorts have a VHS patina that makes everything a touch more unreal (watch closely to catch cameos from the brothers from Pete & Pete, a clear homage to the source material).

Owen and Maddy cling to the show and each other as their home lives become more difficult. Both Smith and Lundy-Paine give vulnerable, heart-wrenching performances as they play the late teenage versions of themselves into adulthood. Rarely do they maintain eye contact or close physical proximity, speaking more in declarative sentences than conversational banter. The awkwardness is pure and wanting, untainted by sexual tension given Maddy’s queerness and Owen’s coding as asexual (“I’m think I live TV shows” is his response to a sexuality query).

Later, when Maddy reappears in Owen’s life after a mysterious disappearance, she forces him to address so much more than their relationship has ever demanded and he is wholly unprepared to accept what she is proposing. As the hazy line between reality and TV basically melts away, Owen struggles to acknowledge the similarities between his life and the show, even though his obsession with it was the only thing he could hold onto.

Now the comfort of the TV glow has become a threatening, glaring beacon to move towards or hide from.

The takeaway is in this discomfort, and how terrifying it is to live a truth that you can barely conceptualize. I Saw the TV Glow is a deeply emotional piece and if you can manage the slow pacing, you’ll be rewarded with the constant sense of dread and dysphoria that Schoenbrun evokes with intimate tenderness.

It’s art-horror in a time of slashers, made for the outcast in all of us.

*  *  *  *  *  *
Produced by Emma Stone, Dave McCary,
Ali Herting, Sam Intili, Sarah Winshall
Written and Directed by Jane Schoenbrun
Starring Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman,
Helena Howard, Fred Durst, Danielle Deadwyler


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