I Saw the TV Glow movie poster

I Saw the TV Glow

In theaters May 17, 2024



100 minutes

Directed by:

Starring: , ,

A24 is known for releasing true underground films that would never otherwise see wide distribution, which means not everything they release will be for every moviegoer. I Saw the TV Glow (2024) is definitely in that category of “too niche for thee.”

Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), both broken outcasts from abusive homes, connect in middle school over a late-night television show. “The Pink Opaque” is the typical 1990s Magical Girl/Chosen One teen drama that is a little bit Nickelodeon’s “Are You Afraid of the Dark” (1992-1996) and a lot WB/CW’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” (1997-2001, WB; 2001-2003, UPN). To further that connection, in a nod that feels like a headbutt, Amber Benson has a cameo.  Despite Owen’s life being so sheltered that he can’t watch television after his bedtime of 9:30 pm, Maddy makes VHS tapes of the show for him, and he occasionally sneaks out at night just to watch at her place and sleepover. Told in slices with chunks carved out, Owen breaks the Fourth Wall to explain the gaps in time. Maddy reappears after an eight-year absence, her disappearance coinciding with an unresolved cliffhanger season finale of their favorite show, and it’s to tell Owen that she’s come back for him. All he has to do is be buried alive and he can be free from “this” reality because he’s actually Isabelle from The Pink Opaque and “this” life is a lie.

It’s clear during this 100-minute homage to folie de deux, that writer-director Jane Schoenbrun is trying to tell us something, we just don’t know what it is. Owen and Maddy were the kids we didn’t have names for in the 90s – on the spectrum, emotionally abused, clinically depressed, and ignored. Some of kids were able to find a connection in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even one-offs like Eerie, Indiana (1991, Fox Kids Network) and My So-Called Life (1994, ABC), which is where I Saw the TV Glow wants to connect. It wants to say, “hey those shows we watched as kids were deeper and truer to real life than actual real life”, but the delivery is stand-offish, and a little ham-handed.

A lot of I Saw the TV Glow is spent by its audience waiting for the other shoe to drop. There is a dull ache of dread that pulses throughout, neither growing nor diminishing in intensity. Owen and Maddy’s relationship is unconventional. He has zero interest in friends of any gender, and Maddy likes girls. Their only connection is a show Owen can’t watch when it airs and has to relive through out-of-order video tapes. There’s no sense of anything else the two may have in common. He misses her, but only in passing when she disappears, and is terrified of her when she returns. It’s the show he misses, and director Jane Schoenbrun doesn’t quite make the connection that the show is real or if the deep loneliness created a shared delusion that allowed them to trudge on. Right when we feel there may be a reveal, the movie just ends.

I know that I Saw the TV Glow is an allegory for being queer, trans, and invisible in the 90s, so this is likely a case of “The Movie Isn’t For Me” however, as it’s being marketed towards a specific genre (horror) and audience (Millennial/Gen Z), the ethereal quirkiness works against it.

There are a lot of oddities that simply make the story off-putting that are difficult to pin down to either directorial choices or actor choices. Youngest Owen played by Ian Foreman doesn’t look a thing like high school and older Owen, played by Justice Smith. Owen’s monotone cadence throughout isn’t consistent and it’s grating after a while. The dialogue is patchy and disconnected because without the show there is nothing between them (and there is nothing between them but the show). The music is loud, emo, overly dramatic, and oppressive, the stretches of silence feel interminable, and when the lights go up after a main character apologizes to everyone, although no one knew they’d caused an outburst, you realize that shoe is never going to drop.

If horror movies can be compared to roller coasters where the climbs are the rising tension and the drops are the scares and release, I Saw the TV Glow is a monorail plugging along at a blistering 22 miles per hour, and maybe the call button is broken and there are mice fighting over a Cheeto.

I Saw the TV Glow looks stylish and feels clever for those connected on the same wavelength. It manages to hit the soft spots in your brain that recall shows you loved with eerie accuracy, but there’s no there there. It’s the longest 100 minutes I’ve experienced in a while. Maybe it’s like those high-pitched sounds only kids can hear. My mental presbycusis couldn’t hear what Schoenbrun was transmitting, But that’s okay. This sound wasn’t for me.

But it won’t keep me from giving it 2/5.

I Saw the TV Glow (2024) is rated PG-13, but I don’t know why. There’s no violence, no one gets hit, or stabbed or punched. There are swears and Justice Smith spits into a ball of cotton candy, so I guess that’s gross.

I Saw the TV Glow is streaming now on the following services:
Movie Reelist Contributor: MontiLee Stormer
MontiLee Stormer is a writer of horror, dark and urban fantasy. She’s also is a troublemaker, concocting acts of mayhem and despair for her own selfish pleasure. An avid movie watcher, she prefers horror but will see just about anything if you're buying. Poltergeist (1982) is her favorite movie and she actively hates The Shining (1980) due to its racism, misogyny, the butchering of the source material. She could host a TEDtalk on this single subject. Writing about herself in the third person is just a bonus.

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