PARK CITY, Utah—Before I Saw the TV Glow even stages its neon-soaked opening shot of a somehow sinister-looking ice cream truck, director Jane Schoenbrun dares viewers to start asking questions. Is the film’s title a declaration—the voice of a character who’s witnessed something unnatural and wants to share it with us? Or is it perhaps a threatening patriarchal scold that people of a certain age, who grew up surreptitiously watching inappropriate things at inappropriate hours on tube TV’s, might instantly recognize?
Given what follows in Schoenbrun’s trippy, terrifying sophomore feature, the answer is probably “both.” I Saw the TV Glow, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, follows a timid teen named Owen (Justice Smith) who seems to move through life with a strange kind of stiffness, an unnameable fear that only seems to lift when he’s around Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine)—a disaffected grunge girl two years his senior who introduces him to a youth television series called The Pink Opaque. Although the series airs on a young adult entertainment network (the last program in the nightly line-up before the black-and-white reruns “for old people”), Maddy insists that it is too scary and too complicated for actual kids. There’s something deeper at play in this show, which hypnotizes both Maddy and Owen into full-blown obsession.
But is it the actual content of The Pink Opaque that glamours these unhappy teens, or is it something else?
The more time we spend in Maddy and Owen’s worlds, the more understandable their dissociative need to escape becomes. Both live under the rule of harsh, authoritarian parents who seem categorically uninterested in who they are or what they hope to become. Maddy’s stepfather is violent, while Owen’s father (Fred Durst) forces him to keep an early bedtime well into high school and speaks only one line in the entire film: “Isn’t that a show for girls?” he asks his son of The Pink Opaque, his voice sharp with an implicit threat.
With lives like these, it’s no wonder Maddy and Owen both sometimes feel like their favorite show about teens bonded by a shared supernatural destiny is more real than reality. I Saw the TV Glow might be a gorgeous homage to the ’90s, but at its core, it’s about the patriarchal, often unspoken forces that can make this world feel unlivable and unbelievable to anyone who is even a little bit different. The film hauntingly dramatizes what it’s like to lock up pieces of yourself in the art you consume—the parts that the world is not safe enough to hold. Through Owen, we helplessly observe the slow-moving death that comes with being forced to hide who you are, even from yourself.
That said, the 9’0s references are plentiful and lovingly rendered in Schoenbrun’s playfully named Void High School (VHS). Buffy the Vampire Slayer runs through this show’s veins, from its girls-fighting-evil show within a movie to the music club that stages wonderful performances from Sloppy Jane (here, featuring their former bassist Phoebe Bridgers) and King Woman. I Saw the TV Glow’s mysterious venue, The Double Lunch, also feels reminiscent of the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks—another series that clearly influenced Schoenbrun. Other influences include Donnie Darko, Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” music video (itself based on the silent film A Trip to the Moon), and Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark. A compilation album from the Scottish dream pop band Cocteau Twins also lends Maddy and Owen’s favorite show its title.
Aesthetically, the result of this otherworldly goth-grunge blend drips with nostalgia. The pink scrawl that introduces the film’s title later returns in the form of episode titles and doodles, as Maddy gives Owens recordings of each episode weekly to circumvent his repressive father. The soundtrack is a hypnotic hum—a blend of soft, whispery voices crooning a mixture of new songs and old hits covered by fresh, contemporary artists like Snail Mail. The musical interludes at the Double Lunch are impeccable; a soul-ripping performance from King Woman, in particular, punctuates a turning point in the film, as it finally reveals the hand it’s been hinting at all along.
I Saw the TV Glow never hides what it’s doing; the hints are there all along, like the show’s pink-and-blue color palette and Owen’s self-admitted fear of getting to really know himself. When the egg finally cracks in this trans allegory, it feels like a natural progression rather than a twist. By the end, when we realize how they all add up, the result is a heartrending blend of emotions. There’s the triumphant high of discovery, and then there’s the devastating sense of years lost—or, rather, stolen.
Smith is unforgettable here, particularly by the film’s finale. Physically, he fully commits to the role, clenching every part of his body to telegraph a deep kind of discomfort. His face is a twitchy canvas of shock and hesitation, and even his voice sounds as if it is struggling to leave his throat. As Maddy, Lundy-Paine (who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns) is the exact opposite—all “don’t fuck with me glares” and bravado in the beginning, and terrifyingly intense by the end after they’ve clawed their way back to Owen. Durst is a master of quiet menace as Owen’s father, even with just one line, and although slightly underused, Danielle Deadwyler brings much-needed warmth as Owen’s mother. And for the Buffy diehards, Amber Benson also makes a blink-and-you-miss it cameo that feels even more thematically resonant in context.
Maddy and Owen might escape into a TV show as teenagers, but Schoenbrun’s true gift here is making clear how much of our “real” world is just as fictitious. Just like the director’s sparser 2021 feature We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the characters in Glow are constantly reaching for something that they never quite seem to capture. And just like World’s Fair, Glow refuses to give us the comfort of a happy ending, leaving us instead to dangle in uncertainty. It’s the kind of ending that follows you home from the theater, tucking itself in with you at night and rasping in your ear as you try to sleep, quietly daring you to watch it all again.