The Spool / Movies
Don’t miss the mesmerizing, moving I Saw the TV Glow
Jane Schoenbrun writes & directs a haunting story of loneliness & obsession.
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Scratch a TV fanatic, and a former lonely kid will bleed. When your everyday life is empty, and you’re not participating in those benchmarks of the “typical” teenage experience, like going to parties, playing sports, whatever, television becomes at minimum a welcome distraction, if not a refuge. Even if the worlds it shows you seem a little strange and even dangerous, at least it’s different than where you are in reality, where every day is the same and everyone just looks right through you.

I’m not the target audience for Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow, for a number of reasons. Yet the miracle of it, particularly for such a strange, often unsettling movie, is its empathy: even if you have no idea what it’s like to be the characters in it, you’re moved by their experiences. In less capable hands, a film as enigmatic as this, which often relies on liminal space to create its most effective moments of unease, would alienate the audience. Instead, the viewer finds themselves as pulled into what’s going on as the characters are.

Opening in 1996 (with the Fruitopia vending machine to prove it), it jumps right in with seventh grader Owen (played initially by Ian Foreman) meeting the person who will change his life: ninth grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Payne), whom he comes across sitting by herself during a nighttime school event. Though both of them are lonely outsiders who are coded as neurodivergent (though nobody says as much, because they wouldn’t have almost 30 years ago), what draws Owen to Maddy is the book she’s reading, an episode guide for an X Files for teens TV show called The Pink Opaque.

Owen is immediately mesmerized by just the idea of The Pink Opaque, in which two girls, Isabel and Tara, team up in an alternate universe to battle the various supernatural beings sent to destroy them by the nefarious Mr. Melancholy, who looks like an evil version of the titular character in A Trip to the Moon. Even before Maddy invites him to her house to watch an episode he’s hooked, but the opportunity to spend more time in that world is hindered by his early bedtime.

I Saw the TV Glow
I Saw the TV Glow (A24)

Two years later Owen (now played by a heartbreaking Justice Smith) is even more lonely and awkward. His mother’s terminal illness makes an alternate universe all the more inviting, and just in time Maddy reappears in his life, supplying him with taped episodes of The Pink Opaque with all the secrecy of someone slipping tabs of acid into a friend’s pocket. Though they don’t talk except in the vaguest terms about their unhappy home lives, Owen and Maddy still bond over their obsession with the show, and what it means to them.

While surely there must be other people out there somewhere who know of and love The Pink Opaque as much as they do, as far as they know (particularly in the nascent days of the internet) they’re the only ones, and that makes their mundane, alienated existences that much harder to bear. But when Maddy starts bringing up the idea of running away together, the meek Owen can’t bring himself to go that far. In the end, it doesn’t matter: within a year Owen’s mother dies, Maddy disappears, and The Pink Opaque is canceled. The one thing that made Owen feel seen in an inexplicable way is gone, and so too the one person (maybe the only person) who understood that.

I was not at all surprised to see that much of I Saw the TV Glow was filmed in suburban New Jersey. Growing up in a similar town, even then I conceded that it was a perfectly nice place to live as long as you fit within the guidelines of what’s considered “normal.” For Owen, even long into adulthood, it does little but emphasize his aloneness. His shoulders sag with the sorrow of not knowing what he needs to do to feel like he’s found his place until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Smith, who’s done solid work in Paper Towns and All The Bright Places (and was one of the only good things about last year’s Apple TV’s snoozefest Sharper), gives a haunting performance here. He’s too old to be playing a high school freshman, but that seems to be the point: he illustrates Maddy’s observation that time moves in a way that doesn’t feel real. At 15 Owen looks 25, at 25 he looks 45, at 45 he looks at least 65. Even more eerily, though I Saw TV Glow takes place over three decades, the scenery never changes. It’s as though time has stopped around Owen, and it’s working its anti-magic solely on him.

It’s not for me to say whether or not what seems to be the greater allegory here works. But just on the merits of depicting alienation, and choosing the devil you know over the one you don’t, it’s a powerful, unusual film that isn’t easily forgotten (or explained). Similar to last year’s Skinamarink, it’s a horror film in which what should be familiar, and maybe even comforting, is sinister instead. Everything feels both too big and too small at the same time, and the older he gets, the less familiar it is.

Maybe it’s all in Owen’s head, or maybe something is desperately trying to bring him into the world of The Pink Opaque, where he belongs. But either way, the veil is thin, so thin he can almost see through it.