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I Saw The TV Glow Review: A Teen Horror Masterpiece Where The Channel Changes You

EDITORS' RATING : 9.5 / 10
Pros
  • The sort of movie that expands young viewers' minds
  • Certain folks will find it painfully relatable
  • Great acting, music, and cinematography
Cons
  • Won't be for everyone

Watching "I Saw the TV Glow," the new horror-drama from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun, recalls nothing less than the experience of watching "Donnie Darko" for the first time. Like Richard Kelly's 2001 mind-bender, "I Saw the TV Glow" thrusts viewers into an uncomfortable headspace where one can never be sure what's real or a psychotic break. Both films recreate past eras (the '80s for "Darko," the '90s for "TV Glow"), but rather than regurgitating the pop culture nostalgia of such eras "Stranger Things"-style, they tell fresh stories firmly attuned to the concerns of their present moment. These movies broaden the minds of their young adult target audience, exposing them to new possibilities of what cinema is capable of as an art form.

While "I Saw the TV Glow" feels destined to become a formative experience for many Gen Z moviegoers, millennials watching it will find themselves reflecting on their own formative experiences with media fandom. This movie is about that cool friend in school who introduced you to your favorite TV show, the illicit thrill of staying up past your bedtime to watch together, the dangers of getting too obsessed, and the personal struggles you were facing that made such obsession an appealing escape in the first place.

Maybe that life-changing obsession was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the primary model for this film's teen fantasy pastiche "The Pink Opaque." Perhaps you're a bit older and your "Pink Opaque" was "Star Trek" or "The X-Files," or you're a bit younger and it was an anime or "Superwholock." Heck, maybe your tastes lean toward "Frasier," which Schoenbrun claims "I Saw the TV Glow" was somehow almost about. But if you had one, this movie has something for you (especially if you're queer or questioning).

Not your average creepypasta

To set proper expectations: "I Saw the TV Glow" isn't the sort of horror movie that will continually thrill you or startle you with fright. I describe it as a "horror-drama" because it's at least as much about exploring the realistic friendship between shy sheltered Owen (played by Ian Foreman in 7th grade and Justice Smith from 9th grade through to middle age) and deadpan goth Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) as it is about the disturbing events that might or might not be happening in their lives and on TV in "The Pink Opaque." Jane Schoenbrun's previous film, "We're All Going to the World's Fair," pleased critics but divided audiences who went in expecting straightforward creepypasta horror and got a weird slow-burn psychological tragedy about a creepypasta fangirl. "I Saw the TV Glow" is less slow and a big step up from its predecessor in terms of filmmaking, but its similar offbeat genre profile may prove similarly divisive.

Creepypasta remains one of Schoenbrun's influences. The kids' show gone wrong premise calls to mind Kris Straub's "Candle Cove" story (which was adapted into the first season of SyFy's "Channel Zero"), but this is neither an adaptation nor a rip-off. Multiple original twists open up divergent perspectives on the true nature of "The Pink Opaque" — one angle is hilarious, another is chilling. You feel the emotional impacts of these twists regardless of what you choose to believe is the truth, a question that remains up in the air due to the inherent unreliability of the film's viewpoint character.

Owen can't be trusted to provide an objective viewpoint because he can't even define his own truth. Raised by an overprotective ailing mother (Danielle Deadwyler) and a father who embodies toxic masculinity (Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit!), Owen is a passive figure who narrates his life to the audience as if he were in a TV show but can scarcely vocalize the real issues that trouble him. Maddy exudes confidence Owen lacks but shares the same sense of depression and alienation. Romance is off the table — Maddy's the rare out-and-proud lesbian at Void High, while Owen can't say if he likes boys or girls but definitely "likes TV shows" — yet their connection parallels the psychic bond between "The Pink Opaque" heroines Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan). But when things go south on both TV and in real life, how deep do those parallels run? 

Continuing a great year for trans cinema

In case you haven't figured it out yet, let's state the obvious: "I Saw the TV Glow" is a pretty unsubtle transgender allegory. 2024 is shaping up as a standout year for trans cinema: Vera Drew's hilarious satire "The People's Joker" escaped copyright limbo, "Monkey Man" featured trans women fighting back against an oppressive government, Hunter Schafer's becoming a movie star in "Cuckoo" and "Kinds of Kindness," and even "Lisa Frankenstein" has been embraced for trans-inclusive messages. Coming from a non-binary director with non-binary and queer lead actors, "I Saw the TV Glow" is perhaps the year's most moving LGBTQ+ film so far, exploring a character gradually collapsing within the constraints of the closet, only able to explore their identity through escapist entertainment. Additional props for addressing all these brutal emotions within a PG-13 context — no bigoted parents can stop the teenagers who need this movie the most from seeing it.

Amongst its many impressive artistic qualities, the music of "I Saw the TV Glow" deserves special note. It would be easy to rely on just the coolest period needle drops and call it a day, and there are some of those, but this soundtrack goes beyond nostalgia with both transformative covers (Yeule's version of Broken Social Scene's "Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl" stands out) and tons of great new music. Jane Schoenbrun asked each of the artists to play what they would perform if they appeared at The Bronze on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" — King Woman, Sloppy Jane, and Phoebe Bridgers get their own full-on concert sequences at the film's Bronze equivalent.

Entertaining yet depressing, surreal yet too real, frustrating yet somehow cathartic, "I Saw the TV Glow" leaves such a strong impression that it's hard to stop thinking about it days after seeing it. Whether or not you fully embrace it, you can't deny it's a singular work coming about as close as possible to the ideal version of itself. We'll be feeling the impacts of this one for a long time to come.

"I Saw the TV Glow" opens in limited theatrical release on May 3, expanding nationwide on May 17.