I Saw the TV Glow, Jane Schoenbrun

The Eerie Beauty in Horror Film ‘I Saw the TV Glow’

With horror film I Saw the TV Glow, Jane Schoenbrun creates an eerie, emotional journey into the intersection of identity and popular culture. 

I Saw the TV Glow
Jane Schoenbrun
3 May 2024 (US)

The 2021 horror film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is an unsettling and original debut feature that announced Jane Schoenbrun as a new voice in cinema. Schoenbrun returns with I Saw the TV Glow, which earned raves at Sundance 2024 and is now in semi-wide release.

Sophomore slump be damned. I Saw the TV Glow is an improvement over We’re All Going to the World’s Fair in every way and will likely wind up near the top of many best of the year lists. Shoenbrun has taken the larger canvas and budget to create an eerie, emotional journey into the intersection of identity and popular culture that may carry significant weight for many viewers. 

Despite A24’s noted financial and critical triumphs and the continual attention the studio commands, their films tend to divide audiences. While the reviews have been mostly positive, I Saw the TV Glow may likely confound mainstream audiences. Shoenbrun is heavily influenced by films by David Lynch and David Cronenberg, and I Saw the TV Glow seems destined to take its place among those directors’ iconic midnight movies. I Saw the TV Glow seems as handmade and carefully constructed as We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, but it is a more complicated story filled with emotional resonance. That balance is critical to the film’s success. 

I Saw the TV Glow‘s story begins in the late 1990s, where outcasts Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) share an obsession with The Pink Opaque, a fictional Buffy-adjacent young-adult series about telepathic teens who fight supernatural evil in their respective counties. The show is abruptly canceled, and the series-end cliffhanger remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, Madi disappears in a literal sense, leaving behind a burning television but no other clues. Owen’s identity gradually disappears as he pushes down his true nature and lives a life of quiet desperation. Madi returns years after the disappearance with a message for Owen, but it is up to him to decide whether he will pursue a life of authentic living.

I Saw the TV Glow is about gender identity, specifically the “egg crack” moment for a transgender person. As Shoenbrun has discussed in most of the interviews promoting the film, their egg crack moment inspired the film in part, and while being transgender isn’t explicitly stated in the script, the film hints at it. The film’s genius is how it provides a point of entry for everyone while hopefully reaching and connecting with transgender audiences. This appears to be working, as Shoenbrun has been posting messages from viewers who made a personal connection with the film.

I Saw the TV Glow is also about the connections we create with media—the powerful but one-sided relationships we have with our favorite shows and music, particularly in adolescence, which provides an additional entry point for emotional connection with audiences. And yet Schoenbrun is not content to wax nostalgic and praise those works that helped us find friends and get through tough times.

Later, in I Saw the TV Glow, they raise more questions: How much can we trust our memories of the art we connect with, and how much does that matter? Is it enough for a show to live in our memory, distorted as it may be? Does outgrowing something mean it has lost value, or can we still value what it gave us when we needed it? And: What are the limits of our one-sided relationship with art? Shoenbrun suggests that our connections with art can get us through, and they don’t have to live in our hearts forever. Indeed, wanting to stay there can be stifling. 

Smith’s performance is remarkable. From his voice to his demeanor, he transforms himself, disappearing fully into Owen. His character is particularly heartbreaking in the film’s final stretch, as he continues to shrink further into himself as time passes. Lundy-Paine delivers a powerful performance as Maddy, effectively capturing teenhood’s certainty and commitment. She provides a compelling counterpoint to the subdued work from Smith’s Owen, particularly toward the end of the film in a hypnotic monologue. 

Some critics note the physical dissimilarity of the two actors who play younger and older Owen. It is also possible to read their differences as a deliberate choice by Schoenbrun. Justice Smith’s brilliant performance as older Owen is a different person than Ian Foreman’s younger version, but that appears to be by design, to dramatize their journey. Owen winds up a different person altogether as I Saw the TV Glow‘s story progresses, hopefully inching toward the self they should become. He also ages much faster than Madi, who has seemingly embraced her identity. Owen is wasting away in the same job he’s had for years, trying to pass as well-adjusted to the detriment of his health.

Despite the significantly larger budget between We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and I Saw the TV Glow, Shoenbrun hasn’t sacrificed the intimate, hand-made feeling their work invokes. The conversations are hushed. The film is filled with eerie, beautiful, unsettling images. The exposition-heavy dialogue sounds like teenagers excited to share their assertions and feelings, even if it’s awkward. The Pink Opaque episodes lovingly recreate the aesthetic of shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? And Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Shoenbrun is an avowed Buffy fanatic, and they have also discussed the important role popular culture had in their own story. There are also impossible-to-miss nods to Twin Peaks and Videodrome in I Saw the TV Glow, but these serve pivotal purposes in the film and aren’t there to establish Shoenbrun’s bona fides.

Another emerging Shoenbrun hallmark is the expertly curated music. We’re All Going to the World’s Fair features a haunting score from Alex G, who also worked on this film’s score. Shoenbrun also brought along an all-star group, including Phoebe Bridgers, Bartees Strange, Caroline Polachek, and Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan, to contribute original songs for the film’s soundtrack. Bridgers and King Woman appear in the film during a pivotal scene that nods to the roadhouse performances in Twin Peaks: The Return. Indeed, the soundtrack is a lovingly assembled collection of songs that simultaneously capture and deepen the feelings the film invokes. In addition, Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan stars as one of the leads in The Pink Opaque.

I Saw the TV Glow is more than just a niche story. Anyone who has mourned the passage of time, felt stifled in life, or committed fully to a favorite show, movie, or band as a course of finding themselves will find much to think about after the credits roll. While it is thrilling to experience the personal touch Shoenbrun has imbued, the film retains a thematic accessibility that should connect with the crowd that rushes to the latest A24 releases. The film is so chock-full of ideas, but it wisely doesn’t wrap any of them up, aside from one critical, definitive statement: It’s never too late as long as you’re alive. 

I Saw the TV Glow is a fascinating companion to We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, which also has elements of dysphoria and body horror. In retrospect, it seems like Shoenbrun was building to this moment, and it will be fascinating to see where they go from here, whether they continue to explore their personal journey.

RATING 9 / 10