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Friday, May 24, 2024
I saw the tv glow
Courtesy of A24

‘I Saw the TV Glow’ is a mesmerizing watch

Director Jane Schoenbrun invites viewers into a strange, unsettlingly familiar world in their new film.

Eight years after vanishing without a trace, a girl reappears in the aisle of a local grocery store. When desperately questioned by a friend about where she went, she only has one response: “Do you remember a TV show we used to watch together?”

Rather than being consumed, media is all-consuming in director Jane Schoenbrun’s sophomore feature “I Saw the TV Glow.” The film follows the debilitatingly shy Owen (Justice Smith) and the deeply troubled Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), two high school outcasts who cultivate a friendship through binge-viewings of a cult-classic television show. This show is “The Pink Opaque” — think “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” meets “Goosebumps.” 

Then “The Pink Opaque” is canceled, Maddy disappears and Owen is left to sort through the pieces, and “I Saw the TV Glow” switches channels from its off-kilter, coming-of-age premise to an interdimensional, psychological horror. 

Schoenbrun is in familiar territory. Their feature debut “We Are All Going to the World’s Fair,” a suffocating found-footage horror for the chronically online, similarly examined how reality can blur when young people are pulled into the tractor beam of media. 

Unlike the slow simmer of “World’s Fair,” though, “I Saw the TV Glow” quickly descends into a vibrant, full-tilt nightmare. 

As the fictional realm of ‘The Pink Opaque’ begins to ooze into Owen’s everyday life, Schoenbrun introduces us to a world where every television can become a portal, every suburban block crawls with monsters and every chalk drawing on the sidewalk is a message from the other side.

Smith’s performance as Owen is largely the film’s emotional buoy. The 28-year-old actor wears adolescent awkwardness with impressive ease, his gawky mannerisms and warbly voice all conveying a sense of arrested development. In contrast, Lundy-Paine’s performance as Maddy is wonderfully bizarre, her slack-jawed demeanor and deadpan delivery imbuing the role with the sensibilities of a “Napoleon Dynamite” character. 

The cast of “I Saw the TV Glow” is small but mighty, and Schoenbrun gives their two lead actors ample room to deliver complex, commanding performances.

The film’s atmosphere is so thick at times it almost feels tactile, largely thanks to Eric Yue’s gauzy, dreamy cinematography. While most indie horror is spiny, “I Saw the TV Glow” is gooey, a sickly sweet visual taffy.

Shoenbrun’s existential horrors don’t leap out of the darkness, bearing fangs. They linger, slowly eating through the film like moth holes in a blanket. In its quieter moments of characters clinging to the comfort of childhood nostalgia, going as far as to literally crawl into the television, “I Saw the TV Glow” is so much more than scary,it’s haunting. 

Some elements inevitably feel less convincing than others. While the familial dysfunction of the film’s young characters is a necessary context to explain their vulnerability, this dysfunction is touched on so briefly that it never holds much narrative weight. Justice Smith’s performance is cumulatively impressive, but the devolution of his character into strained screaming and wheezing by the film’s end feels a bit too absurd. 

Still, “I Saw the TV Glow” undeniably sticks the landing, an emotionally disarming and tenderly realized film that begs the question: If television is an escape, then is the real world a prison?

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In collaboration with the Wisconsin Film Festival, the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Art Committee held an advanced showing of the film on Apr. 2 at The Marquee. “I Saw the TV Glow” releases on May 3. 

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