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‘I Saw the TV Glow’ a cerebral study of fandom and friendship

Katie Walsh – Tribune News Service (TNS)

Jane Schoenbrun might be the only contemporary filmmaker who fully captures the deep emotional truth of our screen-centric media moment. With their breakthrough film, 2021’s “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” Schoenbrun crafted a creepy, otherworldly fable set in an occult online game. But while other filmmakers try to make films about life on the internet using screens as objects to be looked at, in a Schoenbrun film, the screen stares back, gazing upon rapt viewers, whose mediated realities start to become a little bit blurry.

The title of their latest film, “I Saw the TV Glow,” speaks to this relationship between screen and self, the light from the tube television cast upon our characters, curled on a basement couch late at night, furtively watching something they’re not supposed to. The televisual text at the center of “I Saw the TV Glow” is the film’s central fascination and mystery; an object both feared and desired, and a means for individual identity creation and destruction.

The show that emits from the titular glowing set is called “The Pink Opaque” (the name is cribbed from a Cocteau Twins album, and it’s a sequence of words so uniquely pleasing to hear and pronounce that it becomes like a meditative mantra or trigger phrase). Shot in a ‘90s TV style, the show is about two camp friends who meet on a psychic plane in order to fight a villain called Mr. Melancholy and his various rubber-masked henchmen. It’s an homage to young adult horror shows like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and in “I Saw the TV Glow” it’s both the content of the show and the characters’ relationship to it that drives the story.

“The Pink Opaque” brings together young Owen (Ian Foreman) and cool, freaky older girl Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) during an election night polling station at their school. Owen sees Maddy reading an episode guide book and strikes up a conversation. Desperate to watch, he sneaks out to her house to catch a glimpse of the flickering, mysterious Saturday night program, the secretive mission making it all the more alluring. As Owen (Justice Smith) gets older, Maddy leaves him tapes of the show at school and guides him through teenage life in her own weird, slightly menacing way. She also introduces Owen to queerness, coming out by saying, “I like girls, you know that right?” When pressed with the same question, all Owen can admit is, “I think I like TV shows.”

Maddy’s desire to leave their slice of suburbia and her obsession with “The Pink Opaque” cleaves her relationship to reality, or at least Owen’s relationship to Maddy’s reality. When the show is canceled, their tether is severed, and she disappears. When she returns years later, it’s with penetrating questions and portentous warnings.

Schoenbrun takes us back in time to ruminate on our modern identity, weaponizing nostalgia, media and technology not as a cheap emotional access point but as an interrogatory tool. In the same way that “World’s Fair” explored how pliable, adolescent identities can be obfuscated and spun out of zeroes and ones, “TV Glow” investigates how identities can be borrowed and projected onto screens, frozen in time unless outgrown skins are molted off.

This cerebral study of fandom and friendship is also a sensitive exploration of how trans identity can flourish in a mediated safe space like television fandom, where it can also remain trapped. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Schoenbrun reminds the audience via sidewalk chalk that, “there is still time.”

Schoenbrun’s style and storytelling is scaled up, liberated from the stifling interiors and deliberately abstruse narrative of “World’s Fair.” Set over many years, the film appeals to a fondness for the ‘90s with the coolest soundtrack of the year, featuring moody cover songs and live performances from Sloppy Jane with Phoebe Bridgers, and King Woman. The score by Alex G interweaves a buzzing soundscape of staticky electronic hum.

Schoenbrun maintains a hallucinatory, perplexing, surreal, sometimes grotesque pop style, and there is an intoxicating quality to the hazy spell they cast. Smith delivers a deeply affecting, mournful performance, and Lundy-Paine’s eerie, riveting presence takes the lower register. It would be too easy to call what Lundy-Paine is doing deadpan — it’s much more resonant than that. A climatic monologue unfolds like an incantation, their voice like a prayer, a sleep meditation, a scary story told in the dark.

“I Saw the TV Glow” emerges like a fog, casting a pallor that drifts over the audience, allowing us to access this space of fictional liminality. On this psychic plane there is a limitless potential, where only the bravest among us can break through. It’s a heady cinematic journey, but ultimately, a worthy one.

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‘I SAW THE TV GLOW’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for violent content, some sexual material, thematic elements and teen smoking)

Running time: 1:40

How to watch: In theaters May 3

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©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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