Filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun made waves with their dreamlike debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. That film floated in a haunting online space where identity blurred. Now they’re back exploring similar themes, this time digging into nostalgia and memory.
Their latest hypnotic feature I Saw the TV Glow continues Schoenbrun’s fascination with transgender identity. The story drifts between gritty reality and a hyper-color fantasy world from the 1990s. We follow two misfit teens who bond over their obsession with The Pink Opaque, an enigmatic TV show shrouded in psychedelic mysticism. Part grim coming-of-age tale, part allegorical fever dream, this movie promises to cast the same immersive, unsettling spell as the director’s first flick.
Schoenbrun aims to challenge our notion of what’s “real.” Is the glow of memories more alive than reality? Can fantasies reflect deeper truths about ourselves? Strap in for a dizzying descent down the rabbit hole of the adolescent mind.
Into the Pink Portal
Our story follows Owen, a reserved seventh grader with strict parents and few friends. The year is 1996 and Owen feels stranded between childhood and the mysteries of young adulthood. His mundane world transforms when he meets Maddy, an angsty misfit two years his senior. The two bond over their shared love for The Pink Opaque, a fantasy TV show shrouded in intrigue.
Aired late on Saturday nights, The Pink Opaque centers on Tara and Isabel, two teenage girls connected by a psychic bond. Together, they battle gruesome monsters at the command of Mr. Melancholy, an insidious villain who rules the terrifying Midnight Realm. The show broadcasts on the Young Adult Channel, so Owen must turn to Maddy for glimpses of the tantalizingly taboo program.
Maddy slips Owen VHS tapes under the table as she opens up about her outsider identity. The tapes and their friendship become Owen’s gateway to self-discovery. But just as the show disappears, so does Maddy in a blaze of unanswered questions.
Years later, Maddy resurfaces with an unsettling proposition: The Pink Opaque is real, with dangerous implications for Owen’s grasp on reality. Her return sends Owen spiraling through a hallucinatory quest for truth at the intersection of media and memory.
Slipping Between Worlds
I Saw the TV Glow simmers with eclectic influences, blending surreal fantasy and hyperreal suburbia. Through this kaleidoscopic lens, the film explores the unreliable nature of memory and nostalgia.
On one level, Schoenbrun constructs an allegory for the transgender experience. Owen grapples with dysphoria, a sense of disconnect between his inner identity and outer appearance. The Pink Opaque represents the first glimmers of self-understanding, yet also confinement to an ideal that prevents genuine actualization.
Maddy faces similar struggles with her fluid sexuality and gender identity. She immerses herself in the fictional realm to escape oppression. But does this provide liberation or further entanglement?
By splintering reality, I Saw the TV Glow questions the dominance of material “facts” over inner truths. The TV glow holds chaotic power—it can obscure, reveal, trap, and transform. Owen and Maddy must navigate their overlapping fantasies, memories, and realities to integrate their fragmented selves.
Visually, the film achieves these themes through contrast and continuity. The harsh fluorescent lights of suburban high school clash with the otherworldly watercolors of The Pink Opaque. Yet Schoenbrun frequently erases boundaries between real and unreal through jarring montages and psychedelic explosions.
Scenes shift rapidly, sampling 90’s pop culture through a postmodern pastiche. One minute we’re in Lynchian small-town nightmare, the next absorbed in Cronenbergian body horror, bouncing to alt-rock anthems in between. Yet a coherent emotional thread binds these chaotic fragments, centered on the human struggle for self-definition.
Haunting Performances, Hallucinatory Visuals
I Saw the TV Glow thrives on the chemistry between its two leads. As the reserved Owen, Justice Smith internalizes quietly heartbreaking depths. We feel his difficulty reconciling his true self with external assumptions and norms. Smith’s nuanced performance externalizes Owen’s internal journey toward integration.
Brigette Lundy-Paine brings crackling energy as Maddy, electrifying the screen with anger and agony. Her intensity suggests a brilliant mind and passionate heart searching for an outlet—like a live wire unable to ground itself. Lundy-Paine’s hypnotic monologues linger as highlights.
Together, Smith and Lundy-Paine channel the poles of fear and desire that hold identity hostage. Their shared scenes simmer with otherworldly magnetism.
On the visual front, cinematographer Eric Yue floods the film with neon watercolors, using rich saturation and dynamic lighting to create an oneiric atmosphere. The camera switches fluidly between claustrophobia and transportive grandeur, reflecting the characters’ self-confinement and urge to break free.
The creature effects and VHS distortions of The Pink Opaque enhance the surrealism with nostalgic texture. As the camera breaches membranes between fantasy and reality, we feel boundaries dissolve through jolting montages and psychedelic soundscapes. The final sequence reaches hallucinatory heights, overflowing with symbolism waiting to be unpacked.
These arresting elements combine to mirror the quest for self-understanding. We’re left grasping for anchors in a stylistic tornado, just as the characters struggle to find steady ground amidst identity crises.
Dissecting the Glow
I Saw the TV Glow utilizes nostalgia to explore the workings of memory. The late 90s setting drips with cultural artifacts that provoke poignant reminiscence. Yet the film warns against clinging too desperately to selective memories that obscure less convenient truths.
As adults, Owen and Maddy interpret The Pink Opaque through their own confirmation biases. They embellish details that validate their identities and repress those that trouble the waters. This renders memory unreliable for guiding self-understanding.
Only by relinquishing their death grip on this touchstone fantasy can they integrate its gifts with adult discernment. Memory, Schoenbrun suggests, functions best in retrospect: We must let go to gain healthy perspective.
The film also examines the reciprocal dance between media and identity. On one hand, The Pink Opaque nurtures its devoted fans. Its fantastical realm helps Owen and Maddy articulate their inner selves without real-world consequences.
Yet this safe playground also prevents them from bringing those inner selves into fuller actualization. They trap their identities within fiction by clinging too tightly to its confines.
Schoenbrun playfully extends this idea by integrating his characters into the show itself. This tongue-in-cheek motif questions where our true existence lies: Are we watching the glow, or glowing from within?
The visual eruption in the second half highlights the danger of firm boundaries. As reality and fantasy intermingle more freely, we get disoriented—how can we locate truth amidst hallucination?
Yet Schoenbrun suggests that clear delineations are what trap Owen and Maddy in the first place. Absolutist thinking blocks the integration necessary for self-coherence. By dissolving rigid categories, the film’s structure comes to reflect its themes.
The ending extrapolates further: Without firm perceptual anchors, we must turn inward to locate personal integrity. Identity emerges not from borders we defend but fluidity we channel.
The Glow That Binds Us
I Saw the TV Glow marks another ambitious effort from Jane Schoenbrun, furthering their singular explorations of identity and media. Through the interplay between Owen, Maddy, and their beloved fantasy realm, the film examines self-actualization with psychological depth.
While the visual wizardry amazes on a surface level, it’s the vulnerable performances and resonant themes that leave the deepest impression. This alchemic combination cements the film’s reputation as a cult classic in the making.
Of course, such idiosyncratic style isn’t for everyone. Those who prefer narrative coherence over tonal experimentation might get lost down the rabbit hole. Yet for cinema aficionados craving bold new visions, I Saw the TV Glow shines blindingly bright.
Schoenbrun has crafted another contemporary fable that pushes the boundaries of the medium. Sui generis films like this expand our sense of what movies can achieve. Even when its reach exceeds its grasp, the sheer inventive gusto inspires.
For championing that creative spirit alone, I’d wholeheartedly recommend catching this film’s otherworldly glow. It might just awaken something luminous in you. My advice: Open your mind and let the magic flow through.
I Saw the TV Glow
I Saw the TV Glow is a singular cinematic experience that announces Jane Schoenbrun as one of the most inventive emerging filmmakers today. It explores identity and nostalgia through the transportive interplay between fantasy and reality, imagination and memory. While the plot might bewilder some viewers, the rewards lie in the themes, visuals and central performances. Schoenbrun has crafted an eclectic dreamscape overflowing with ideas.
- Mesmerizing visuals and atmosphere
- Captivating lead performances (Justice Smith & Brigette Lundy-Paine)
- Creative allegory for transgender identity struggles
- Ambitious themes explored (nostalgia, memory, identity)
- Distinctive directorial voice and style
- Plot can be confusing and disjointed
- Pacing drags at times
- Overindulgence in style over substance
- Surrealism goes overboard in places