‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: Self-Discovery Through Late Night Binging

Peter Paras reviews I Saw the TV Glow, Jane Schoenburn's transfixing sophomore effort featuring an intriguing story, a strong lead performance, and great vibes.
User Rating: 8

No matter the age, the difference between being alone and being lonely can be as wide a cavern as analog to digital. Whether online or in real life, the need to connect is as vital as food or shelter. I Saw The TV Glow the second feature by writer/director Jane Schoenbrun (We’re All Going To The World’s Fair) takes such observations one step further: can we ever have a meaningful connection with others if we don’t yet understand ourselves? Starring Justice Smith (Pokemon: Detective Pikachu) and Brigette Lundy-Paine (Atypical) as two such teens, the latest genre-infused vibes flick from A24 won’t be for everyone, but for some, it’ll be everything.

When lonely teenager Owen (Smith) bonds with classmate Maddie (Lundy-Paine) over a mysterious late-night TV show on the Young Adult Network called The Pink Opaque, the world within the show begins to feel more real than real life. Soon, the suburban horrors of coming-of-age in the mid-1990s permeate a sense of foreboding that unspools across decades before reaching a breaking point.

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Beginning as the two in seventh and ninth grade, respectively (Ian Forman plays young Owen while Lundy-Paine is Maddy throughout), in true geeky fashion, their friendship is forged not with the actual late-night TV show but with the official episode guide that dives into the show’s five seasons. In reality, the late 90s brought about the millennial classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from which The Pink Opaque borrows heavily. Right down to the opening credits’ font style.

The Pink Opaque, for those who have never watched Buffy or other countless shows on the CW such as The Vampire Diaries or Riverdale, follows Tess and Tara (played by Helena Howard and real-life lead singer of the alt-rock Baltimore band Snail Mail, Lindsey Jordan) who meet at a sleepaway camp and soon discover they share a psychic connection. Like the real YA shows it’s based on, The Pink Opaque features monsters-of-the-week and a Big Bad by the name of Mr. Melancholy, who is, in fact, the moon. All of it, like Buffy, is about how the anxieties of adolescence can be literal monsters. As a fan of these shows, I would totally binge The Pink Opaque if it existed and probably get that dope pink ghost tattoo, too.

Wisely, beyond the 3 am atmosphere of nighttime by cinematographer Eric Yue, which more than a few times seems to pay homage to another teen cult classic, Donnie Darko, Schoenbrun treats most of the exchanges between Owen and Maddy as a personal podcast of their favorite show. Moment after moment, these teens rarely talk about their actual feelings but are obsessed with the reality of The Pink Opaque. In other words, they are teenagers through and through. Their obsessions are their badge of honor.

There’s nothing like being a loner and “finding your tribe,” even if it’s merely a cabal of two. Having someone get the real you is vital to pretty much anyone, much less someone struggling with their own identity. Schoenbrun’s film shines a light on a very particular kind of self-discovery. Rarely have I seen a film about adolescence excel at how small the world must be in order to make any sense of it, even if that means the only reality is a low-budget TV show.

Recently, Polygon posted an article highlighting a new era of trans-authored cinema. Three filmmakers were mentioned, including Schoenburn for I Saw The TV Glow. As someone who identifies as cisgender, I can’t speak to how the film’s themes of self-discovery will hit if one identifies as transgender. Still, I can say the final act’s bleak finale is quite palpable, regardless of how one views themselves, much less through the lens of gender dysphoria. I mean that as a compliment and, at least partially, a possible trigger warning.

Smith has the unenviable task of straddling the line performance-wise between wide-eyed naivety and fear-crippling cynicism. As an actor, he’s always been charming in a low-key way in films such as The Quarry or Detective Pikachu, but he goes to much darker places here. As a character, Owen is entirely specific in his obsession with The Pink Opaque and, at the same time, completely relatable.

The rest of the cast all put in good work, too. Lundy-Paine goes from a cool teen you’d want to notice you to something altogether unsettling in a way that feels honest. As Tess and Tara, Howard and Jordan give cheekily 90s YA vibes. Smaller roles like Owen’s parents, played by Danielle Deadwyler and, of all people, Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, are less dynamic roles, more akin to the adults seen in a Charlie Brown cartoon. This variety works further to isolate Owen from any kind of grounded reality.

The soundtrack is terrific. Ultimate sad girl karaoke singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers shows up to play alongside Sloppy Jane onstage. Hyperpop queen Caroline Polacheck fashioned a new track. The tracklist includes Yeule, the Weather Station, and multiple cuts from King Woman—all of it, suitable ear candy for the strange vibes of the film.

I Saw The TV Glow was a film I needed to see twice before writing about it. Not that the plot was hard to grasp, but the late-night feeling easily washed over me upon first viewing. Call it the “what did I just see?” effect. I can’t wait to see it again, and I wish The Pink Opaque was real for me, too.

I Saw The TV Glow opens in select theaters on May 3, 2024.

Written by
Peter Paras is pop culture writer who has been reviewing films for the past fifteen years. Raised in Chicago—but an Angeleno since the start of 21st century—he has plenty to say about films, television, videogames, and the occasional YouTube channel. He’s a frequent guest on Out Now with Aaron and Abe, as well as TV Campfire Podcast. His work has been published at Why So Blu, Game Revolution and E! Online. His favorites include: Sunset Blvd, Step Up 2 The Streets, Hackers, Paris Is Burning, both installments of The Last of Us, Destiny 2, and Frasier.

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