Connect with us

Featured Review

Berlinale 2024 – I Saw The TV Glow ★★★★★



Released: 2024

Director: Jane Schoenbrun

Starring: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman

Review By: Connor Lightbody

There are certain films that feel like you’re watching the greatest movie ever. The feeling is physical; it’s pinpricks dancing on your skin. It’s your breath running jagged. Like free falling in love on a first date. It’s your spirit transcending a plane of existence for two hours, while all your problems just melt into the static. The ephemeral feeling of your loneliness and despair at the world fading away, right as hope for cinema takes its loving hand and caresses your cheek. 

You know the feeling, and you know those films. You get it when watching ‘As Time Goes By’ in Casablanca. When Jesse and Celine narrowly avoid eye contact in the music booth in Before Sunrise, or when Andy Dufresne gets his metaphorical baptism as he escapes a river of shit in The Shawshank Redemption. I got this feeling when I was watching Jane Schoenbrun’s alchemic and unique film I Saw The TV Glow. Specifically when the vivid hellscape that Schoenbrun and team created came to its pessimistic soul-shaking climax and my entire body shook, the dense work of audacious queer art finding itself repeating across my eyeballs. The kind of film that makes you question if five stars is ever enough for something that is unquantifiable and incomparable. The kind to give you an existential crisis if everything else you’ve ever given five stars to is deserving of being placed on the same pedestal. 

It must be stressed that going into I Saw The TV Glow as blind as possible will result in your best experience. Even knowing the textual reference that Shoenbrun uses as a way of discussing an entire subculture’s queerness and that parabolic sense of naivety that came from it will take away an element of the film that is a mischievous delight. With that, if you’re here to be sold on the film take this: Whatever film you’re expecting from I Saw The TV Glow is not what you’re going to get as the film perforates the membranes of genre; exciting, petrifying and astutely observes the flaws in nostalgia and the experience of dysphoria in horrifying and compelling fashion. Schoenbrun’s film is enigmatic, tangibly thought out and the kind of film that gazes into the deep recesses of your spirit. 

In 90’s suburban America, reclusive teenager Owen (Ian Foreman) questions his existence, both as a young man and of the sexual desire he barely feels. He is magnetically drawn to Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a girl two grades above him who wears black eyeliner and is dressed in 90’s emo-style attire. She is reading the episode guide for The Pink Opaque, a teen action drama that is on late night TV and too late for Owen to watch. The young Owen is enraptured by her, not sexually but with the envious eyes of a gender-dysphoric teen who is asked if he even likes girls; “I like TV shows”. Over the next few years, the two bond over the show as Maddy begins recording the shows on VHS tapes and letting him watch. 

The Pink Opaque quickly becomes Owen’s (now played by Justice Smith) favourite show. The show features two teenage girls in a monster-of-the-week dynamic, as the show chronicles their combined journey against Mr Melancholia, a wonderfully camp villain who lives on the moon and is seemingly inspired by Georges Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon. The Pink Opaque is a show indebted to the supernatural schlock of the 90’s; Charmed, Angel and most of all Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The show even delightfully uses the same font as the latter does within their credit sequence. A neat touch from a filmmaking team that seems very passionate about the small details. It is these small details that make the film feel so purposeful, and never like Schoenbrun is trying hard to impress.

An irony if there ever was one. The film never feels performative, but that Owen and Maddy perceive their gender and sexual struggles as performative is one of the many idiosyncrasies and ironies that exist within this special film. Every jump cut and transition in I Saw The TV Glow feels natural within the scope of a film that exists within its own unique set of rules; a phantasmagorical bubble of strangely lucid pop music, vivid neon visuals and synth scores. Moving so fluidly with a sense of uncouth precision that is indicative of the character’s shaky mental health and dysphoric struggle, with the sharp code-switches between times and places discombobulating and unnerving.

Schoenbrun’s film is utterly arresting, every frame detailed with passion and craft. The practical effects of the monsters that feel similar to classic 60’s Doctor Who, to the video game adaptation of Mr Melancholia that appears later in the film (Shoenbrun ruined the ‘movie magic’ at the Berlinale Q&A by saying it was a reconditioned Space Invaders game) add to a film that also has a frank sense of cynicism to it. That pessimism tinges the film with a sharp sense of melancholy for millennial TV, repurposing these shows and its fanbase to comment on the flaws in having blind nostalgia and of the gender binary as Owen is told not to watch the show that is ‘made for girls’.

The lines of reality distort like white noise in I Saw The TV Glow, as the two teenage characters in The Pink Opaque are juxtaposed laterally with Owen and Maddy. Their battle with Mr Melancholia doesn’t end, with the show being cancelled on a cliffhanger. Just like their experience with gender dysphoria will never find a resolution, always hanging onto the flickerings of what could be without transitioning. Schoebrun, being trans and non-binary themself, is bringing their experiences into the toybox of creativity that is employed by the team within every aspect of the film. That the film deals with trans acceptance as much as it does the sense of internal trans rejection speaks to Schoenbrun’s own history of identity struggles with gender. 

Some may say this review is in itself a performative piece, but there is something in I Saw The TV Glow that spoke to a part of myself. The part of me that is still stuck in the universe of those childhood shows that I once held in deep regard; the movie itself is now stuck in my universe forever, while a version of myself remains stuck inside the movie. The distressing final scene, a soul-aching anti-cathartic metamorphosis of dysphoric torment made me look internally, to how those queer feelings – not necessarily trans – festered like rot inside me until I came out as Bisexual in 2017. I knew that rotting feeling, and I felt Owen’s suffering but it was not until I let I Saw The TV Glow expand outside of my own internalised narcissism and queerness did I realise what I truly wanted to do after it ended: hug my trans friends.

The thesis the film posits, one where the internalised pain that dysphoria presents itself as is a tragedy to a generation that has only just begun to see representation on screen, made me want to reach out to my trans friends. While I have no experience of dysphoria itself, that I, for the faintest of seconds, experienced that feeling vicariously through the glow of the cinema screen, made me readjust the framework of which I coast through life as a cis man. I don’t understand the trans experience, but I never will and that is okay. I Saw The TV Glow presents itself as a worst-case scenario, where only through the support of allies and queer folk can you find who you really are. 

I Saw The TV Glow is first and foremost an excellent surrealist neon-infused psychological horror, featuring a sublime performance from Justice Smith and a funky, electronic soundtrack (with original music from Caroline Polachek, Phoebe Bridgers and others). But the film’s subtext is so rich and dense that the film becomes more like how good art is supposed to make you feel; electrified and repulsed and alive. It acts as a signal for cis and queer folk to help a section of our fellow human beings that are in pain. The gripping, audacious filmmaking feels like Schoenbrun uncorked a potent potion of pain to create this, as the pain felt by its characters becomes the point. That the film’s allegorical excavation of queer trauma is so precise and so acute marks Schoenbrun as a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaker, and I Saw The TV Glow as the best film of 2024, if not the decade. 

Just For You