“I Saw the TV Glow” Review

Beware: “Buffy” fandom and spoilers ahead

In the fictional television show The Pink Opaque, Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan) share psychic supernatural powers that enable them to fight monsters of the week and, ultimately, the show’s “big bad,” Mr. Melancholy. The film I Saw the TV Glow begins with the initiation of seventh-grader Owen (played by Ian Foreman as young Owen and Justice Smith thereafter) to the show by ninth-grader Maddy (a riveting Brigette Lundy-Paine). Pink Opaque’s mythology draws the two adolescents together, a bond against their tense home and mundane suburban-lives.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will recognize The Pink Opaque’s homage and, indeed, director Jane Schoenbrun has discussed their own Buffy fandom alongside the show’s well-known deployment of supernatural queer subtext. Buffy’s vibe seeps into I Saw the TV Glow beyond The Pink Opaque, though, with its moody, menacing neon-flavored ‘90s depiction of suburbia, and its concomitant killer soundtrack. The live performances that take place in a bar called the Double Lunch harken to the Bronze in Buffy, where artists like Darling Violetta and Aimee Mann performed for vampires and non-vampires alike; in I Saw the TV Glow, Sloppy Jane alongside Phoebe Bridgers take the stage, as does King Woman soundtracking the film’s pivotal crisis action.

Here come the spoilers: As a young teen, Owen balks when Maddy tries to coax him into running away, and instead blows his own cover about sleeping over her house (this storyline involves the film’s two great cameos: Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst as Owen’s heteronormative father; and Buffy alum Amber Benson as a schoolmate’s mother). Maddy ultimately disappears for many years, leaving a burning television set in her wake. Owen grows up and tries to “be a man,” but emits a lonely, blank unremitting misery. Maddy returns many years later and the film’s mood slides into surreal Twin Peaks territory, as she probes Owen about their shared past love of The Pink Opaque and its finale in which the supernatural heroines were buried alive. Was it really just a show? Or was it perhaps their shared real life? Are they Helena and Tara? Flashes of Owen dressed as Isabel suddenly make clear what he has been trying not to admit his whole life. And despite Maddy’s entreaties, Owen remains not ready.

Knowing the film’s trans-narrative in advance of viewing does not detract from the anguish of watching the life, the very air, seep out of Owen as he refuses to allow himself to be the person that exists inside the skin he eventually peels up to reveal the TV static underneath; he viscerally opens his chests after cracking open at work, where he screams like a wounded animal amid a nightmarish children’s birthday party.

In the final moments of the film, Owen walks out of work apologizing to everyone for his outburst, but no one cares. Graffiti on the sidewalk reads: “It’s not too late,” a message of hope alongside a grim image of unresolved closeted suffering.


+ Heart-wrenching, smart, killer soundtrack

- Unlikely to appeal to the literal-minded

I Saw the TV Glow

Directed by Schoenbrun

With Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Lindsey Jordan

Violet Crown, 1 hour 40 minutes

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