THE STORY – Teenager Owen is just trying to make it through life in the suburbs when his classmate introduces him to a mysterious late-night TV show — a vision of a supernatural world beneath their own. In the pale glow of the television, Owen’s view of reality begins to crack.
THE CAST – Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Fred Durst & Danielle Deadwyler
THE TEAM – Jane Schoenbrun (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
With their 2022 feature, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” director Jane Schoenbrun caught the attention of critics and horror fans. Even from their first major feature film, it was clear that they already had a masterful grasp of tone and a defined cinematic voice. Many, myself included, couldn’t wait to see their next film. That follow-up has arrived. “I Saw the TV Glow” is a fresh, ultra-confident directorial triumph with a perfectly calibrated eerie tone and some of the most uniquely frightening images to grace a movie screen in quite some time.
The story, covering the late 20th and early 21st centuries in dreary suburban America, hops through time. It focuses on Owen (Justice Smith), a teen who we see grow into a young adult. He’s a loner who finally makes a connection with someone when he meets fellow teen Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who seems to make a competition out of how anti-social she can be. They bond over their shared love of “The Pink Opaque,” a young adult supernatural adventure television show that’s part “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” part “The X-Files,” with a dash of “Twin Peaks.” As Owen becomes more and more intense in his fascination with the show, he starts to see his world change in new and upsetting ways.
It’s hard to fully explain what this film is about using a typical plot summary. From the start, it’s clear that something is not okay in the seemingly normal setting. This is where Schoenbrun’s gift for tonal authority is so essential and apparent. Owen and Maddy live in a world so banal and average that it warps around to somehow feel uncanny with very little obvious effort. So much of Schoenbrun’s accomplishments truly defy description – the patient pacing and overwhelming feeling of expected dread and inevitable terror all morph together in an ineffable way to create the perfect environment for horror. By the time the film starts to show external, visual examples of the frightening energy that hovers around the characters, the uneasiness that the audience has been infected with makes the imagery we’re shown have even more of a horrifying impact. The television show that Owen obsesses over is ostensibly for children (or young adults, as Maddy stresses), but the footage that’s shown of it – even in its purposefully lo-fi, cheap style – feels so wrong and uncanny, it’s like watching a snuff film.
This disquieting feeling that the film foists upon the audience is the perfect way to make viewers feel as anxious as Owen and Maddy do in their time and place. Both are queer in a world that not only doesn’t approve of that but violently rejects it. In that sense, the film is an extremely empathetic one, but rather than making the audience feel for the characters in an exclusively compassionate way; it helps those watching to share in the discomfort that Owen and Maddy feel.
Schoenbrun’s scary images are an unholy wonder. I’ve seen so much of what horror has had to offer film lovers, and there are a handful of distinct moments in “I Saw the TV Glow” that gave me a feeling of fear that I’ve rarely encountered before. The uncompromising, foreboding tone of the film helps the audience be properly prepared to feel maximum fright. If you don’t get full-body chills during the scariest moments, you might need to see a doctor.
As Owen, Justice Smith gives his best performance yet. It’s a challenging role wherein he must play a teenager, a young adult, and eventually a full-grown man. Owen is quiet, but Smith infuses him with a simmering nervousness that only bursts through in select, ultra-effective moments. He’s fully equipped to usher the film through its more idiosyncratic instances, with his commitment to the character’s journey allowing the audience to buy into some of the more odd and off-putting scenes and images. Brigette Lundy-Paine’s Maddy is similarly riddled with insecurities, but they manifest as more externalized, barbarous statements and unexpected actions. Lundy-Paine is fully invested, and even if she’s not always portrayed as the kindest individual (but who is at their best in high school?), the humanity that the actress brings to the character makes the audience want to see her through to safety just as much as Owen does.
“I Saw the TV Glow” is a triumph. Its crafts – like the patient editing, gloomy cinematography occasionally punctuated with bursts of colorful neon lighting and ambient score by Alex G – are all calibrated to assist in elevating the director’s vision. It’s an unnerving look at how the melancholy of American drudgery and unmet expectations can lead us away from our true selves and sense of purpose, set in the decay of the suburbs. It’s easy to make comparisons and call this film Lynchian or Cronenbergian, but the filmmaker’s voice is so unique and already instantly recognizable that it can only be called Schoenbrunian.