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'I Saw the TV Glow' review: The vibes are good, but the movie is off

Courtesy of A24


Nobody can deny that writer-director Jane Schoenbarun is making interesting films with challenging aspects and moody ambiance. As evident by their creepypasta inspired “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” and now, with the similarly strange “I Saw the TV Glow,” Schoenbrun has crafted another unique world that’s filled with atmospheric detail, but fails to ignite in a way that’ll leave the viewer nourished. But something tells me that’s all by design. “I Saw the TV Glow” is a singular work that, at times, is meant to invoke childhood memories of getting lost in fantasy worlds and stumbling back into reality and facing our fears and challenges. The movie has a great soundtrack and slick lighting, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it’s one that left me feeling jaded. A monotonous trek where certain moments caught my attention (especially with the recreation of the nineties television aesthetics), but a film that nonetheless is extremely disappointing. 

The sci-fi, horror themed coming-of-age movie begins in the mid-1990s where we meet Owen (Ian Foreman as a middle schooler before Justice Smith steps in as a teenager and adult) who connects with a similarly quiet and reserved Maddie (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Maddie is obsessed with a late night show called “The Pink Opaque,” a supernatural series that’s like “Supernatural,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “The X-Files” all rolled into one. Maddie uses the weekly airings as a means of escaping her fractured lifestyle, including that of her abusive stepfather. Likewise for Owen who has an estranged paternal relationship and whose mother is dying of cancer. 

During the film, we get the sense “The Pink Opaque” is more than just your average late night diversion and the way in which it connects the viewers and themes in the show might seem emblematic of geek culture and their obsessions with “Star Wars” or Marvel, but “The Pink Opaque” is a different beast. Ironically, the brief VHS inserts of the show we see suggest “I Saw the TV Glow” may have followed a more commercial path. Complete with a villain and a peppy, upbeat pace, but Schoenbrun wants their movie to be taken on its own serious merits. It’s respectable, but it’s easy to see what might have been. 

Instead, “I Saw the TV Glow,” which is laced with the drollest narration imaginable by Smith in the film’s most nauseating performance, is built on a series of eerie, nightmarish dream sequences where it’s all about the “vibes” and not much else. The brooding, somber soundtrack is certainly a nice touch, but it’s in service of a narrative that is intent on keeping its supernatural elements at an arm's length. At one point, there was a hint the characters might be venturing into some “Pleasantville” adjacent waters, but alas, there’s hardly a resolution. Or even the faintest smell of one. Everything is teased and established and we’re left with an incomplete journey. I enjoy ambiguity as much as the next person (allowing our imaginations to fill in the blanks is always a bold narrative choice), but “I Saw the TV Glow,” more often than not, gets high on its own supply. 

Then again, it’s a movie meant to open these types of dialogue and conversations. If anything, the chatter I heard among patrons as they were leaving the theater (“What just happened?” among other quips) is always a welcome injection in a cinematic environment peppered with flavorless dreck. “I Saw the TV Glow” just didn’t work on a thematic level, maybe the next Schoenbrun vehicle, at least for me, might. 

Grade: C 

I SAW THE TV GLOW is now playing in theaters. 


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