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The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

“I Saw the TV Glow” Review: Nostalgia and queer identity intersect in Jane Schoenbrun’s new psychological horror-drama.

Mara Logan

In the films of director Jane Schoenbrun, screens and the media displayed on them act as a separating force between the “real” world and the true identity of the characters within it. If Schoenbrun’s debut, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” is a lo-fi digital portrait of its protagonist Casey searching for her identity within an online creepy pasta community, then their newest film, “I Saw the TV Glow,” is a larger scale work that explores queer isolation within American suburbia with its potent mixture of melancholic teen angst and unsettling existential terror. Working with a larger budget financed by A24, “I Saw the TV Glow,” is a massive step-up that proves Schoenbrun to be one of the most vital new voices working in film. 

“I Saw the TV Glow” follows Owen (played by Ian Foreman as a child and Justice Smith as a teenager/adult), a sheltered adolescent whose relationship to his favorite TV show, “The Pink Opaque” (a fictional hybrid of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Are You Afraid 

of the Dark?”) acts as an escape from his quietly oppressive suburban home life. The connection Owen has with the show, along with Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), the slightly older queer outsider who introduces him to it, shifts and distorts as the material world and the world of “The Pink Opaque” begin to bleed into one another in the wake of its cancellation.

The film channels its dissociative imagery through very precise and controlled camerawork, which, in addition to its vibrant neon color palette, helps sell the film’s shift from a nostalgic coming-of-age story into one of dread. The rich look of 35mm film (as opposed to most modern films, which are shot with digital cameras) gives the images a beautiful texture as well as aiding in the film’s nocturnal atmosphere with its deep blacks and purple hues.

The scenes depicting “The Pink Opaque” perfectly capture the detail of 90s young adult television while the moody soundtrack (featuring artists like Sloppy Jane, Alex G, Caroline Polachek, and many more) tows the line between nostalgic and modern sounds. While the film is deeply indebted to the works of David Lynch, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Gregg Araki, Schoenbrun is still able to synthesize these influences into an end product that feels unique and deeply personal. 

The familiar small-town locations throughout the film start to take on a menacing quality as Owen’s life becomes plagued by repression. The high school football field, movie theater, arcade, and even Owen’s own home all feel increasingly threatening as the film progresses. Owen’s father (played by Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst) acts as a looming figure of emotionally vacant masculinity, with his silent looks of disapproval being shrouded in darkness. The performances of Smith and Lundy-Paine are able to channel the nuances of their characters over the span of several years, with a lengthy monologue given by Maddy being one of the film’s highlights. 

Without getting into spoilers, “I Saw The TV Glow” deals with the theme of transgender identity and dysphoria in a way that is beautiful and heartbreaking in equal measure.

While this film isn’t necessarily a straightforward horror story, the psychological terror rooted throughout the film eventually reaches a breaking point that leads to one of the most emotionally devastating endings I have seen in a long time. “I Saw The TV Glow” is a film that truly shows the possibilities of what trans cinema can do in its formal ideas while still remaining a thoroughly engaging and emotional experience that is among the best films of the decade so far.

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