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Indie Drama 'I Saw the TV Glow' Is a Mesmerizing Suburban Nightmare

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Published May 22, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Two outcast teens find solace in a cult TV show in Jane Schoenbrun's atmospheric indie drama. - COURTESY OF A24
  • Courtesy Of A24
  • Two outcast teens find solace in a cult TV show in Jane Schoenbrun's atmospheric indie drama.

The pandemic wasn't good for indie film. With cinemas closed, many festival favorites jumped straight to streaming and languished in obscurity there. Among them was Jane Schoenbrun's We're All Going to the World's Fair, which premiered at the all-virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Schoenbrun's follow-up, the equally creepy and hypnotic I Saw the TV Glow, fared better. See it currently at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington.

The deal

In 1996, middle schooler Owen (Ian Foreman) is captivated by a promo for a show called "The Pink Opaque" on the Young Adult Network. When he spots an older outcast teen named Maddy (Brigitte Lundy-Paine) reading an episode guide for the show, he overcomes his extreme shyness to approach her.

Maddy invites him over for a secret sleepover, where Owen is sucked into the show's story of two psychically bonded teens battling paranormal monsters. His dad (Fred Durst) declares the show "for girls," so as Owen grows older (now played by Justice Smith), he watches on the sly, with Maddy passing him VHS tapes of each episode. She confides that she "likes girls" and that her abusive home life is unbearable.

Just before "The Pink Opaque" is unceremoniously canceled, Maddy begs Owen to run away with her. Fearful, he backs out — a decision that will haunt him well into adulthood, as will the imagery of their beloved show.

Will you like it?

"This isn't the Midnight Realm," Owen tells Maddy at a pivotal point in the film. "This is the suburbs." He's referring to a domain of evil on "The Pink Opaque," but the joke is on him. I Saw the TV Glow belongs to a genre of homespun surrealism in which the suburbs are always the Midnight Realm. In Blue Velvet or Donnie Darko or even as far back as "The Twilight Zone," everything that makes bedroom communities safe and cozy also makes them dangerous after nightfall. And if anyone's going to seek out that danger, it's restless teenagers chafing against their parents' definitions of "safety."

Rather than the horror film that some of its marketing suggests, I Saw the TV Glow is an indie drama through and through, with slow pacing that may frustrate viewers who don't relate to its nostalgic setting and themes. Those who do, however, will be riveted — and moved.

The first shot establishes both mood and color scheme: blue-shadowed pavement decorated with phosphorescent pink graffiti. The pink shimmer will appear again in the matching tattoos on the girls in "The Pink Opaque" and in the titular TV glow that illuminates many scenes. Its otherworldly promise clashes with the homely details of suburbia: paneled basement rec rooms, giant fish tanks, drab high school hallways.

With its themes of magic and sapphically tinged friendship, "The Pink Opaque" offers young viewers a vision of transcendence and liberation. That's especially meaningful to Owen, who's so deeply inhibited that every word he speaks sounds like a prisoner's strangled cry for help.

The show is clearly inspired by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which had a passionate teen (and adult) following in the late '90s. While mainstream culture dismissed it as teen fare, fans avidly followed its mythology. Some undoubtedly felt, as Maddy says of "The Pink Opaque," that the show was more real than their lives.

What marks this as a millennial film is that Schoenbrun doesn't treat the characters' fixation ironically. When I was growing up, filmmakers almost universally depicted television as the enemy of art — a soulless, brain-numbing medium driven by advertising. (Think of the disdainful remarks about "TV babies" in Gus Van Sant's 1989 Drugstore Cowboy.) But the '90s saw the rise of serialized "prestige TV." And today, with the boundaries between film and television blurring and "content" streaming on every device, the family TV set feels like a charming artifact of the past.

So perhaps now younger filmmakers can admit how much those "boob tubes" shaped them. When Maddy asks Owen whether he likes boys or girls romantically, he replies seriously, "I like TV shows." Later, as an adult, Owen streams the long-canceled show and realizes it was tamer and tackier than he remembered. (We've all been there.) But the yearning for escape aroused by "The Pink Opaque" remains.

And Schoenbrun treats this yearning as something good, the kids' way of straining toward an authenticity they can never find in the suburbs. For Maddy, the show becomes an avenue to express her sexuality; for Owen, it could be a pathway to true identity. (Visual cues suggest that Owen is trans, while Maddy's shifting self-presentation hints at gender fluidity.) By projecting their feelings onto the show, these characters use fiction to explore their own midnight realms — until adulthood forces them to decide whether to live their truths in the harsh light of day.

If you like this, try...

We're All Going to the World's Fair (2021; Kanopy, Max, rentable): Like I Saw the TV Glow, Schoenbrun's previous film is about the hidden late-night worlds of teenagers, with a protagonist who participates in a creepy online challenge.

Donnie Darko (2001; AMC+, the CW, Peacock, PLEX, Pluto TV, Roku Channel, Sling TV, Tubi, rentable): Richard Kelly's cult film kicked off a new millennial generation of David Lynch-esque cinema, often with suburban and self-consciously retro settings.

It Follows (2014; Netflix, Prime, rentable): David Robert Mitchell is another indie director exploring the suburban midnight realm. While this horror allegory was his biggest success, The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010; AMC+, Kanopy, rentable) is also well worth seeking out.

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