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Movie Review: Bask in Jane Schoenbrun’s “I SAW THE TV GLOW”

Friday, May 17, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine and Ian Foreman
Written and Directed by Jane Schoenbrun

Very few generalizations can or should be drawn from a director’s body of work when the director in question is only a couple of films into their career. Having a clear, unique voice can be apparent early, but more evidence is needed to truly see if their body of work will continue to be clear and unique. But what an exceptional early streak can do is give hope: Hope for their career, hope for the future of cinema, and hope that many more excellent films are coming from them. As strange as it seems to describe the deeply bleak film I SAW THE TV GLOW as “hopeful,” it is the hope for what wonders writer/director Jane Schoenbrun may bring us that earns them that affection.

Schoenbrun caused major waves in 2021 with the Sundance debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. That film built a world of isolation, mythology, and unanswered questions through a single teen, on a single computer, in a single room. The sheer force of storytelling and characterization was impressive and felt magical. Many eyes were on Schoenbrun to see what they might do next. I SAW THE TV GLOW is what they did next, and it lives up to the sky-high expectations projected onto Schoenbrun and their future as a fresh voice in filmmaking.

I SAW THE TV GLOW (in expanding release from A24) broadens the landscape by including friendship and collective nostalgia, and spanning decades of one young man’s life. Owen (Ian Foreman, and later Justice Smith) is in middle school, quiet and reserved, but decides to strike up a conversation with Maddie (Brigette Lundy-Paine). She is two years older than him, at an age when those two years really matter, but they bond over the episode guide Maddie is reading. The Pink Opaque is a monster-of-the-week show for teens, à la Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Charmed, and it is Maddie’s obsession. So much so that one night, Owen lies to his parents to sneak out to Maddie’s house to watch an airing episode.

These two awkward and isolated kids find a certain comfort in one another and the world of The Pink Opaque. It seems a little corny at first, but seeing how deeply Maddie feels for the two lead characters and how much she values their messages makes it hard to dismiss the show altogether.

Deliberately paced, I SAW THE TV GLOW continues from there, bobbing in and out of Owen’s life as he continues his fandom and occasionally crosses paths with Maddie. The film is in no rush to get anywhere and instead prefers to soak in Owen’s life and experiences, often dwelling on moments alone and ordinary. Due to the nature of The Pink Opaque and Owen’s own apprehensive look at people and the world, I SAW THE TV GLOW has a brilliantly stifling atmosphere that convinces us something terrible is always just moments away. And that premonition is not always wrong.

Smith is absolutely excellent as Owen. His combination of eagerness and trepidation is not an easy task, yet Smith makes this complicated mode feel accessible and even universal. With that said, it is difficult to turn attention away from Lundy-Paine for a single moment whenever Maddie is on screen. She is a charismatic introvert, whose passion for a TV show makes her a mystery worthy of solving. While the search for that solution may be a fool’s errand, the desire to at least try to figure Maddie out remains strong.

Thematically, I SAW THE TV GLOW takes a long, hard look at the nature of fandom and the role of nostalgia within media worship. Both the dark and light of these endeavors are examined, criticized, and celebrated.

Though it may not be intentional, the greatest strength in Schoenbrun’s films to date is their ability to function like cinematic Rorschach tests. Adolescence and adoration are near-universal experiences, and with the characters given the space to feel big feelings, each viewer can bring their history of these feelings into these films and have their own experience. It does not matter if one person thinks of Buffy in the ’90s, another Scooby-Doo, and someone else imagines Stranger Things. All of those are valid, and all of those experiences relatable. Everyone’s life and emotions have a place here.

With all this talk of universal emotions and inherent hope, it is easy to lose track of the fact that I SAW THE TV GLOW is an unnerving and disarming genre film. It gets under the skin, and is a welcome disruption.

Deirdre is a Chicago-based film critic and life-long horror fan. In addition to writing for RUE MORGUE, she also contributes to C-Ville Weekly,, and belongs to the Chicago Film Critics Association. She's got two black cats and wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero.