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Sundance 2024 Review: I SAW THE TV GLOW Delivers Supernatural Thrills


Neon colors surrounded a boy and girl as they look at something glowing
Image courtesy of Sundance

By Dolores Quintana


Jane Schoenbrun’s third feature film, I SAW THE TV GLOW, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was one of the hottest screenings at the festival. It was so popular that I could not get into the screening until after the film had started. 


I SAW THE TV GLOW stars Justice Smith, Brigitte Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Danielle Deadwyler, and Fred Durst. Yes, that Fred Durst. The film’s synopsis states, “Teenager Owen is just trying to make it through life in the suburbs when his classmate introduces him to a mysterious late-night TV show — a vision of a supernatural world beneath their own. In the pale glow of the television, Owen’s view of reality begins to crack.”


In the film, Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Owen (Justice Smith) bond over a popular show called "The Pink Opaque" and, over time, share a fanatical devotion to the show’s deeper meaning and stars, as well as a burgeoning friendship. Similarities to the hardcore fanbases of shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Twin Peaks" are strong. It was a period before “stan culture” became the norm, and that fanatical brand of fandom spread to different parts of pop culture. Their devotion to the show, which brief clips reveal to be a somewhat low-budget series that doesn’t match their recollections, becomes part of their identity, and the phrase, “I am going to make [this movie, this show, this pop star] my entire identity.” comes to mind. 


Maddy and Owen are searching for their identities through the show, and Owen, in particular, seems without direction or ambition and in need of something to cling to. It’s something that we all do to a certain extent. We find a film, a band, a singer, or a book that we adopt because it resonates with us on some level when we are children. More often than not, fans are adopting an identity that is based on their favorites because figuring out who you are and what you are going to choose to do with the rest of your life is terrifying. 


Much of this terror is rooted in the fear of making the wrong choice. Owen’s character is emblematic of that particular issue. We are conditioned by society to make certain and very specific choices: be heteronormative, go to college, get a good job, get married, produce offspring. Occasionally, some deviation is allowed during certain parts of your life, much like the Amish ritual of Rumspringa, with events like Spring Break. 


Owen and, specifically, Maddy are different and feel different than everyone else at school. If you have ever felt like an outcast because your sexuality is not heteronormative or because you have an unstable or abusive family, you know how they feel. It makes it even harder to find an identity of your own because the forces of society are rigorous in high school. So it is natural that they would idealize "The Pink Opaque," with its mysticism and outsider characters that are imbued with psychic powers, as their salvation. You have to find your family and support system somewhere. Some find it in music, others find it in film and TV, but it is practice for being able to become an adult with a strong sense of self and discernment. 


It is also comforting to people who are ostracized. It seems to say, “They call me a weirdo, they call me a freak. Okay, fine. I am weird. I refuse to be normal. I refuse your world. I am special.”


“You do not define me.” 


I SAW THE TV GLOW has much in common with Schoenbrun’s previous film, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. The opening scene of the film is the character Casey (Anna Cobb) taking the “World’s Fair Challenge,” which has the air of a ritual complete with the shedding of blood. In I SAW THE TV GLOW, the ritual is performed weekly as the friends raptly watch "The Pink Opaque" and then discuss the show’s deepest meanings. It is about how art can help you define yourself and how parents fear that influence. It’s not indoctrination; that’s what society does; it is a freeing of the mind from parental and societal influences. 


In a way, it seems like practical magic, an intense focus on becoming something more than they currently feel like they are. Practical Magic is defined as “a flexible and diverse spiritual practice that allows individuals to work on self-improvement, achieve specific goals, or address practical concerns in their lives through the application of magickal techniques.”


It is the process of realizing that you can be whatever you choose to be.


The horror of Schoenbrun’s films is putting the person who is watching it back in the shoes of that uncertain teen who doesn’t understand that the choice is theirs. I SAW THE TV GLOW has some body horror and a free-floating feeling that forces larger than yourself can crush you at any moment. 


The cinematography by Eric Yue is gorgeous and rich, with a patina of darkness. The music and musical performances are pleasing and integrated well into the storytelling. In particular, the concert scenes are reminiscent of the Bronze from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and they give a feeling of an alternative world that accepts these outsiders. 


During the Q&A session after the film screening, Jane Schoenbrun discussed the influence of the experimental film Liquid Sky from 1982 on I SAW THE TV GLOW. One of the things that I found difficult to adjust to was the style of acting. Schoenbrun and the actors discussed that the style that Schoenbrun wanted the characters to have was the same as the actors in Liquid Sky used. It is not the realistic style that is currently popular, but one where very little outward emotion is shown. It is very much a deadpan style. Liquid Sky is a film that stars Anne Carlisle in a dual role as Margaret, a bisexual model who is addicted to cocaine, and Jimmy, a gay model who is also addicted to cocaine and who is Margeret’s nemesis. 


The film, directed by Slava Tsukerman, expresses emotion through the film’s music, cinematography, and imagery rather than through the actors' performances, and that was a bit of an adjustment for me as a viewer. But it does make sense because teenagers, especially LGBTQ teenagers, are frequently forced to hide who they are, and many in our society are still programmed to repress strong emotions. 


I SAW THE TV GLOW is a dreamy yet horror-tinged examination of the LGBTQ, specifically trans, experience that is something that nearly any ostracized teen or adult can relate to. Horror fans, in particular, would likely strongly be able to empathize with the film’s themes and mystical atmosphere. With a deliriously obsessive connection to art as life, it reveals depths that you might not suspect it has at first. It will entice those who can embrace its fixation on a life that you create for yourself. 


It is made of dreams that become your reality if you are brave enough to believe.


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