‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: Jane Schoenbrun’s 1990s Teen Phantasmagoria Is a Modern Masterpiece

There was a point while I was watching Jane Schoenbrun’s astounding and genre-defying “I Saw the TV Glow” where I felt like I’d traveled back in time. Not in the usual way, the way in which every movie is an act of time travel, capturing events and performances long past and revisiting them over and over. No, this was more unusual. This was “what it must have been like.” Younger generations will never know how it felt to walk into a theater unprepared for the experience of “Blue Velvet” or “Videodrome,” and then discover those films for the first time. Their groundbreaking legacy is cemented now, a part of the historical record. We can find out what the fuss was all about but we weren’t there to make that original fuss.

That’s a rare and magical moment, and “I Saw the TV Glow” is a rare and magical film. It is a passionate, terrifying, physical manifestation of a movie. It reaches inside your imagination and stirs it around, making new connections between familiar concepts. It’s not just great, it’s fascinating and revelatory. The only rational response to a movie like this is to make a huge fuss about it. They come along so rarely.

Schoenbrun’s film remembers the sweet and sorrowful loneliness of being young in the 1990s, when TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” weren’t just entertainments, they were lifelines. To watch “Buffy” now is to see an old, sometimes very good show. To be a sophomore when Buffy was a sophomore? That was something else entirely.

It sounds like fodder for nostalgic fluff. “I Saw the TV Glow” has no fluff at all. It understands that the stories we connected to as young people were profound, even if we were the ones projecting all the depth. The art we adopt for our own personal lexicon speaks volumes about who we are and what we care about, and that can either be transformative or, if we can’t bring ourselves to transform, depressing and bleak.

The film stars Justice Smith (“Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”) as Owen, a teenager with no connection to anybody, even himself. He describes a hole where he thinks his identity should be. His mother (Danielle Deadwyler) is dying and his father (Fred Durst) is abusive in subtle and, sometimes, abstractly nightmarish ways. Owen is not even allowed to stay up late enough to watch a cult TV show for kids, “The Pink Opaque,” about two girls who are psychically connected and fight impressionistic evils. When Owen asks to watch it he’s told that it’s a show for girls. End of conversation.

Owen may not be allowed to watch “The Pink Opaque” but he finds a way. His classmate, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine, “Bill & Ted Face the Music”), has the official episode guide, probably purchased at their local Borders, and they treat it like a holy text, sharing its secret gospel. When Owen can’t sneak out for their rare, forbidden slumber parties, Maddy records episodes and hand-draws the labels on their VHS cassettes, building every installment up as an important, life-altering event.

Owen isn’t altering his own life. He’s barely living except when he’s with Maddy, and their shared experience is directly connected to a TV series. It all feels so strangely familiar. “I Saw the TV Glow” is a haunting and beautiful tale about self-discovery, where the self-discovery part is tragically optional. You can live vicariously through a TV show or you can do something about it. Maddy does something about it and mysteriously disappears. Owen does nothing and disappears inside himself, quietly murmuring his way through life. He exists, sort of, but nothing more.

When Maddy returns, years later, “I Saw the TV Glow” changes dramatically, and it’s worth it to remain coy about exactly how. Suffice it to say that the dreamy but mostly realistic drama that writer/director Jane Schoenbrun erected in the first half shatters like a stained glass window when Maddy starts asking Owen what he remembers about their youth. It’s the first of two mesmerizing speeches from Brigitte Lundy-Paine, who is revealed here to be a nuclear-level actor. Schoenbrun gives Lundy-Paine dialogue that could, in a less confident or nuanced performance, be treated like a weird exposition dump. But Schoenbrun and Lundy-Paine are on the same wavelength: These are clarion calls, wake up alarms that ring out like a shockwave, and they hit hard, amplified by Eric K. Yue’s ethereal cinematography and a killer soundtrack.

“I Saw the TV Glow” is a clear and intricate metaphor for trans experiences. It’s a moment of self-realization writ large and writ very long, as characters in the film either embrace their inner reality or struggle to comes to terms with themselves over significant periods of time. Perhaps this is an allegorical story about our desperate attempts to find deeper meaning in mainstream media, and the emptiness this can bring if we’re not careful. That’s sad, and profoundly so.

But if one takes “I Saw the TV Glow” entirely at its word this goes far beyond sad, into the truly profound. It’s horrifying to imagine a life where your call to greatness was ignored but the credits don’t start rolling. Luke Skywalker ignores Princess Leia’s message, gives the droids to the Stormtroopers, and lives his whole life on Tatooine, never knowing what he could have done with his future. That’s not just sad, that’s the ultimate tragedy, and it demands exploration.

Schoenbrun’s previous film, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” was the best movie of 2021. The filmmaker’s new film may turn out to be the best of 2024. Both use thoroughly contemporary conceptualizations of media as a lens through which to explore personal, interior experiences. They’re uniquely modern texts that speak to a generation that buys all the tickets but rarely finds its personal worldview expressed through cinema. In “World’s Fair” a lonely teenager uses the online art of creepypasta to illustrate their coming of age story, only to feel betrayed and misinterpreted. In “I Saw the TV Glow” two teenagers have each other, and need each other, but their inability to connect with the same art on the same level — to reach the same epiphanies — threatens to pull them apart.

“I Saw the TV Glow” understands with rare and poetic insight the emptiness of a life half lived, and the way we fail to fill it, and how destabilizing it can feel to even try. But in the end it’s about how much more horrifying it would be to not confront our fears. This is a cautionary tale tilted on its side so you can see the empowerment just behind it, getting nudged off the screen. It’s the sort of film that film-lovers are always searching for: something new, something challenging, a modern masterpiece.

A24’s “I Saw the TV Glow” opens exclusively in theaters on May 3.

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