Review: I Saw the TV Glow | Sundance 2024

Score:  B-

Director:  Jane Schoenbrun

Cast:  Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Fred Durst, Danielle Deadwyler

Running Time:  100 Minutes

Rated:  NR

"Shut up, it's starting."

The world of horror is anything but constricted. Open and flexible, the genre has been heavily explored in recent years, largely thanks to the successes of Jordan Peele's Get Out and Ari Aster's Midsommar. High-brow, elevated stories now exist alongside slasher threequels, giving the category new voices and approaches that expand the intrigue.

Jane Schoenbrun's I Saw the TV Glow is a newly minted entry into the class, though marking the film as horror doesn't do its story justice.

The film, set in the late 90s/early 00s, stars Justice Smith and Bridgette Lundy-Paine as two kids who discover their joint obsession with a show entitled The Pink Opaque. But unlike traditional nostalgia and fixation, their fascination with the late-night offering isn't driven so much by the actual narrative but rather by their desire to escape their situation.

Each of their journeys is different, their position specific. But you cannot deny the queer themes that run heavily throughout as both characters struggle to deal with and process the world. To them, it doesn't make sense. They appear lost amid others, laboring to find and understand their place. It is easier to lose themselves within the show than deal with the life happening around them.

Suddenly, as the two continue to bond over new episodes, the show gets canceled. The unexpected absence of new material fractures their existence, straining their friendship as they work to exist, minus the weekly escape. Without it, they must face the unspoken social norms and expectations that often make the world unlivable for those who don't fit the traditional mold.

Years later, when they meet as twenty-somethings, they are in entirely different places. The film uses Owen to depict a slow and mundane decay brought on by a feeling of necessity to hide the pieces of oneself. Maddy ran, changing her surroundings to uncover a world where she felt more comfortable and accepted.

At one point, shortly after their reunion, Owen learns that The Pink Opaque is available on a streaming service, all five seasons accessible with the click of a button. But something has changed. The series looks different. It makes him feel different. On the brink of pure embarrassment, he questions himself and the validity of his obsession.

Loneliness and passionate fandom aside, the film asks many questions. While the answers are likely there, they require some digging. Owen (played by Smith from grade nine on) occasionally breaks the fourth wall to bring a stylized narration to his life story. But even those moments are timid, lacking emotion and confidence.

Schoenbrun, a non-binary and trans artist, hasn't shied away from the fact that the film, though heavily influenced by "Buffy," is primarily inspired by their own trans experiences, realizing and coming to terms with their identity.

Knowing that gives the film a central intent and direction. It also paints a large-scale metaphor that allows the audience to bear a sense of understanding as to Owen and Maddie's struggles.

Even though the story is personal, Schoenbrun beautifully conveys a level of uncertainty, self-doubt, and confusion that many within the queer community experience. Though the film is understandably theirs, it is told in a way that broadens its appeal and relatability, all with a 90s flare.

While I don't see the film reaching mainstream status, I believe a group of dedicated fans will obsess over the intricate details Schoenbrun has carefully constructed, much like our leads obsess over The Pink Opaque.

I Saw the TV Glow takes time to process and appreciate. And even when you achieve that, you still might not like it. That's okay. The film is unquestionably polarizing, marking the creation of a complex, personal, genuinely original work.


About Stephen Davis

Stephen Davis
I owe this hobby/career to the one and only Stephanie Peterman who, while interning at Fox, told me that I had too many opinions and irrelevant information to keep it all bottled up inside. I survived my first rated R film, Alive, at the ripe age of 8, it took me months to grasp the fact that Julia Roberts actually died at the end of Steel Magnolias, and I might be the only person alive who actually enjoyed Sorority Row…for its comedic value of course. While my friends can drink you under the table, I can outwatch you when it comes iconic, yet horrid 80s films like Adventures in Babysitting and Troop Beverly Hills. I have no shame when it comes to what I like, and if you have a problem with that, then we’ll settle it on the racquetball court. I see too many movies to actually win any film trivia contest, so don’t waste your first pick on me. My friends rent movies from my bookcase shelves, and one day I do plan to start charging. I long to live in LA, where my movie obsession will actually help me fit in, but for now I am content with my home in Austin. I prefer indies to blockbusters, Longhorns to Sooners and Halloween to Friday the 13th. I miss the classics, as well as John Ritter, and I hope to one day sit down and interview the amazing Kate Winslet.