‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: Moody, Interesting, No Fun

This movie is clever, cool, and a slog. Its world is nightmarish not in the way that most horror movies are but in a way that resembles an actual nightmare.

Justice Smith and Brigitte Lundy-Paine in I Saw the TV Glow. A24

Sometimes calling a film “challenging” is code for “I don’t like it, but I don’t want to sound stupid or uncool for not liking it.” My challenge with I Saw the TV Glow is that almost everything I dislike about it is done on purpose, and effectively. As a piece of art, I can’t deny that it works. Writer-director Jane Schoenbrun transported me to a realm of deep, humming, ambient despair, and I did not enjoy my time there. I Saw the TV Glow is a “mood,” an atmospheric journey with loads of bixsexual neon lighting and a very hip soundtrack. It’s received loads of praise from other critics, which I will not directly contradict. But I found I Saw the TV Glow to be an unforgiving slog, a film that occasionally piqued my interest but ultimately left me disappointed.

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I SAW THE TV GLOW ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Jane Schoenbrun
Written by: Marco Perego, Rick Rapoza
Starring: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Fred Durst, Danielle Deadwyler
Running time: 97 mins.

This horror-infused coming of age story opens in the mid-1990s when quiet kid Owen (Ian Foreman as a preteen, Justice Smith as a teenager and adult) meets gloomy older kid Maddie (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Maddie is a die-hard fan of The Pink Opaque, a horror-adventure show about a pair of telepathically-linked suburban teens who help each other fight demons. But The Pink Opaque seems to be more than just an escape from their dreary home lives and abusive fathers. There’s a strange connection between the show and its viewers. Is the show becoming a part of them, or are they part of the show?

The Pink Opaque is two parts Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one part Are You Afraid of the Dark? and one part Twin Peaks, a show with a clever conceptual hook presented in an unnerving lo-fi idiom. This is also a fair description of the film it’s nested in. I Saw the TV Glow could definitely have fit into a more mainstream mold, had that been filmmaker Jane Shoenbrun’s aim. There’s a version of this film that’s built like a more typical Buffy installment, with a faster pace, a more physical menace to combat, and a cleaner resolution. As it stands, it most closely resembles “Restless,” an episode of Buffy made up almost entirely of surreal dream sequences. It’s slow, eerie, deliberate, and really wants to be taken seriously.

Justice Smith in I Saw the TV Glow. Spencer Pazer

The world of I Saw the TV Glow is nightmarish, not in the way that most horror movies are but in a way that resembles an actual nightmare. The pace of each scene is drawn out to maximize discomfort. There are long spaces between each line of dialogue, and every word out of Owen’s mouth is a struggle. Watching anyone try to communicate in this film is agony, and while that’s certainly the intent, that doesn’t make it less painful. I found Justice Smith’s stuttering, wispy performance to be infuriating, though almost certainly he’s performing as directed. Brigette Lundy-Paine absolutely nails the role of an edgy teen who has made “depressed and misunderstood and smarter than you” their entire personality and who I would cross a busy street to avoid having a conversation with. Both of their characters feel like real, suffering outsiders rather than spit-shined cinematic avatars of teenage angst, and while that’s an achievement, it’s also a reminder of why media usually exaggerates adolescent wit, foolishness, or both for the sake of entertainment. The real thing sucks as much to watch as it does to experience firsthand.

The awkwardness and displeasure do serve a purpose. Schoenbrun puts us in the shoes of a young queer person who feels out of place, hollowed out, uncomfortable in their own skin. Owen identifies strongly with Isabel (Helena Howard), one of the female leads of The Pink Opaque, but is afraid to embrace what this connection might mean. He lives in fear of his father (Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst), a silent statue of a man nearly always photographed from a distance or from low, obscure angles. His mother (the always excellent Danielle Deadwyler) is not long for this world, which will leave Owen with nothing worth holding onto. And yet, he remains paralyzed, too afraid of being judged or rejected by a world from which he is already completely alienated. It’s an evocative portrait of gender as a prison from which no one can simply be released — you need the courage to escape.

While there are supernatural elements and otherworldly imagery, most of the horror of I Saw the TV Glow is of the existential variety. Schoenbrun repeatedly teases more overt supernatural elements, but these otherworldly horrors remain ambient—ever-present but backgrounded. This is creepy, but it’s also disappointing and essentially leaves the film without a third act. There’s no thrill, no relief, no fun whatsoever. It’s pure bummer.

Being unpleasant isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly hasn’t kept I Saw the TV Glow from winning a lot of critical praise. The film is “cool to like” in the way David Lynch movies are cool to like. It requires more patience than a mainstream motion picture, it doesn’t answer all your questions, and it’s not supposed to make you feel good. The thing is, Lynch’s movies are that way because their author is a genuine weirdo who doesn’t want to be understood. I Saw the TV Glow is too transparent a film to operate on this level. It makes too much sense, has too legible a plot and too obvious a message.

Art films always have a greater allowance for being unpleasant than a commercial movie might have. However, on some level, the experience needs to be more rewarding than it is punishing.

‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: Moody, Interesting, No Fun