I Saw the TV Glow

Directed By Jane Schoenbrun

Starring – Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman

The Plot – Teenager Owen (Smith) is just trying to make it through life in the suburbs when his classmate (Lundy-Paine) introduces him to a mysterious late-night TV show a vision of a supernatural world beneath their own. In the pale glow of the television, Owen’s view of reality begins to crack.

Rated PG-13 for violent content, some sexual material, thematic elements and teen smoking.

I Saw The TV Glow | Official Trailer HD | A24 (youtube.com)


A24 continues to put out thought-provokingly subversive and stylistically entrancing films that solidify the beauty and ambition of the arts, and in “I Saw the TV Glow”, the much-anticipated follow up to “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair”, from impulsive direction Jane Schoenbrun, we have a thorough dissection of isolation and escapism set against the backdrop of the end of the 20th century television. It’s a fantastically expressive film full of imaginative unpredictability, but one that Schoenbrun uses to conjure that same kind of atmospheric dread and prolonged tension that has made her a force to be reckoned with behind the director’s chair, all the while inspiring a particular place in time that visually comes across seamlessly with subtlety to backdrop designs that a 90’s child like me will thoroughly appreciate. On top of this, the film feels like something conjured entirely out of David Lynch’s universe of films, both in the prolonged pacing of the interactions and storytelling, which help to calibrate an atmospheric uneasiness to the engagement, but also in the daring and often times chilling imagery when the film sheds some of its deeper layers. Because of such, it’s certainly easy to label this horror, but never in ways that we as a mainstream audience have come to expect from the genre, instead opting for mystique in the mayhem to garner a world where anything can and often does feel possible. It’s also highly enhanced by the dynamic in friendship between Owen and Maddy, who are each essentially established as social outcasts among their peers, and are forced to take comfort in not only the dispositions of each other, but also in a TV show that allows them to escape into, as well as project onto the sleekly lucid presentation on the film, which cinematographer Eric Yue paints with purple ultraviolet color grading to allow it to stick out from anything else currently playing in the mainstream eye. The show within the film feels intentionally corny and terribly produced to outsiders like us, which only further solidifies the bond between two people who are able to get so entranced in it, and the lore of its fictional capacities are fleshed in everything from novella episode guides to passionate tape-trading, which brought back feelings of an unfortunate time before Tivo or streaming, where you only had one or two chances to catch a particular episode, before essentially losing it all together to time and space. As Owen becomes more invested to the show, we uncover a deeper significance about key aspects to the characterization that are uncovered in some truly brilliant methods, where exposition dumps involving on-the-nose dialogue are substituted for lucid dream sequences and character responses in the performances that prove there may be more to the reality that meets the eye, without the script needing to further elaborate on it as an unnecessary arc to the movie’s already air tight 91 minute run time. The pacing certainly won’t be for everyone, as Schoenbrun has been known to take time developing her characters and their respective conflicts with extended editing, but for me I was so thoroughly entranced with the consistency of the movie’s extensive world-building and character bond that I simply couldn’t get enough of it, and wouldn’t of minded an additional twenty minutes between the second and third acts to further tap into Owen’s dysphoria, which mentally and physically take him to some dark places, where the rest of the world feels asleep while he and Maddy attempt to unravel the realities of their bleak situations. Owen and Maddy are performed remarkably by Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine, with the former turning in the best and most challenging performance of his career, and the latter making the most of her limited time with frailty and disparaging loneliness that drive and justify much of her unorthodox behavior. Smith’s turn here is mostly subdued in delivery, with an overarching nervousness to his demeanor that effortlessly conveys the social anxieties of his character’s design, but beyond that masters the difficulty of portraying the same character during three respective time periods, but with subtleties and nuances to the portrayal that capably fill in the gaps of what we may have missed during the various plunges forward. Smith and Lundy-Paine’s chemistry is so obviously awkward and testing with one another, as expected from two social outcasts looking for their own distinct places in the world, but there’s also a compelling dynamic between them that speaks volumes about their firmly established age gap, with the younger Owen following the older and irresponsible Maddy, but never in ways that the film uses as predictable love interests to complicate their already complex emerging friendship. Lastly, if the film had an X-factor in its favor that makes it stand out, it’s certainly the mesmerizing score from Alex G and various artists on the movie’s soundtrack, which play feverishly towards the aforementioned tonal consistencies that the movie and Schoenbrun depend so faithfully on. The soundtrack is composed of many 90’s rock songs, like The Smashing Pumpkins “Tonight, Tonight”, which are repurposed as dreary lullaby’s of sorts, and Alex G imbeds an electronic aura in instrumentals that enacts a nostalgic warmth to the engagement, working perfectly with Yue’s bizarrely unnerving visuals in ways that last year’s “Five Nights at Freddy’s” probably should’ve attained.


Aside from the pacing feeling vital to anyone’s enjoyment of the film, “I Saw the TV Glow” is occasionally hindered by a couple of underwhelming framing choices that don’t always line up seamlessly to their intention, particularly the framing of its thirty-four year device, which creates some sloppy instances with reality. When the film begins, Owen is thirteen-years-old and portrayed by Foreman, but two years later he becomes Justice Smith, a twenty-nine year old actor himself, who is asked here to portray a fifteen-year-old. While most people will say Smith still looks like a teenager, I simply don’t see it, and found myself forced to go along with this grown adult portraying a freshman, who constantly looked and acted older than his surrounding peers. This problem further intensifies itself towards the film’s ending, as Owen, now fifty-seven years old and still played by Smith, is given some of the worst aging make-up that I have seen in quite sometime, making this close to middle aged man look eighty, which feels further complicated by Smith continuously playing him. Beyond this, my only other issue with the film pertained to Smith voicing an unnecessary narration to the film, where he occasionally pops in to further echo what we previously learned during the very last scene. My issue here isn’t just my problem with typical overhead narration, where it serves as a hand-holder for audiences unable to pay attention, but rather distractions with the gimmick of Owen’s loneliness being broken to speak directly to the audience, in that it gives the character an out when things are getting tougher for him. In addition, one strange instance established him as an unreliable narrator, where later on in his life he says he has something that we’re never shown visual proof of, so it just sort of feels like he’s lying to the audience to pad his own circumstantial isolation. I don’t truly understand the intention, but I do feel that the film could lose this narration, and it would only enhance its appeal, especially in that we as an audience don’t play any kind of gimmick or alleviation to the loneliness of its characters.

“I Saw the TV Glow” is another hypnotically entrancing portrait of adolescent loneliness from Jane Schoenbrun, who takes horror in psychologically subversive directions that David Lynch once perfected. Between two emotionally moving performances from Smith and Lundy-Paine, as well as uniqueness in every expressive avenue from presentation to production, the film taps into adolescent anxieties as an overhanging fog that calibrates much of the movie’s dread and despair, resulting in pop culture escapism that sometimes dangerously fills the void.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

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