2024’s weirdest film is a haunted flashback for the Nickelodeon era

Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine watch TV with rapt attention in a screenshot from I Saw the TV Glow.
Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in I Saw the TV Glow. A24 / A24

The characters in Jane Schoenbrun’s haunting new indie reverie I Saw the TV Glow first bond over an episode information. Not a TV present. The official information for a TV present. Introverted suburban teenager Owen (Ian Foreman as a seventh grader, Justice Smith thereafter) will finally develop into obsessive about The Pink Opaque, a chintzy cable sequence about two junior-high ladies from totally different cities who forge a psychic bond to battle supernatural forces. But earlier than going full fan, Owen is drawn to the approved print companion he spots the marginally older Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) flipping by way of after faculty.

If you got here of age within the Nineteen Nineties watching reveals like The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — community watercooler sensations that sat on the intersection of mainstream success and cult attraction — it’s possible you’ll nicely have owned considered one of these tie-in books, whose shiny pages provided full-color pictures, tidbits of behind-the-scenes trivia, and summaries of the tangled mythology that linked every weekly installment. Such trusty almanacs of lore have been the bibles of late-Twentieth-century fandom. Today, they seem like relics of an older period, rendered out of date by the mass hissing of modems. Eventually, all the knowledge contained between their shiny covers might be discovered on the click on of a mouse as an alternative.

That fictional ebook for a fictional present is only one telling, evocative element that ties I Saw the TV Glow to a really specific time interval. Though the plot in the end races ahead by way of the years, a big stretch of it takes place within the late ’90s, particularly 1996 and 1998 – what you can name the heyday of episode guides, proper earlier than everybody took their lives and pursuits on-line. It’s one factor to precisely seize the look and vibe of a previous decade, however Schoenbrun does one thing extra uncanny nonetheless: They create a snapshot of a lonely micro second, the final gasp of analog fandom on the daybreak of the web period.  

Schoenbrun is quick turning into an professional at plugging into the very soul of a tradition. The writer-director’s outstanding first function, the microbudget We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, informed a drama of on-line preoccupation by way of the language of viral movies and creepypasta horror. Few motion pictures earlier than or since have higher understood the web as a machine for reinvention. Was the movie’s remoted teenage heroine discovering or dropping herself by plunging down the rabbit gap of role-playing? Was this a narrative of hard-earned belonging or radicalization? That it’s powerful to say is indicative of Schoenbrun’s shrewd ambivalence, although, in fact, there was a bigger metaphor to be discovered within the thriller. 

I Saw the TV Glow isn’t any extra simply categorized. Like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, it tells a story of transformation — or no less than the screaming want for one — that may’t be filed in a single specific aisle of the proverbial video retailer. In scope, finances, and the title recognition of its forged (Danielle Deadwyler! Conner O’Malley! Fred freakin’ Durst!), the movie is a step ahead — even an inch towards the A24 mainstream. Subculturally talking, it appears backwards: Having made one of many quintessential motion pictures in regards to the web, Schoenbrun has now returned to an America but to totally migrate on-line. Was this the final second in historical past when it was potential to really feel really alone in your media obsessions, when you can nonetheless really feel like they belonged solely to you?

Schoenbrun is sufficiently old to acknowledge that, again then, popular culture was in some way each extra ephemeral and extra tangible. Before streaming made time slots out of date, following together with a densely mythological small-screen saga like The Pink Opaque meant ritualistically tuning in when it aired. That, or discovering somebody to tape it for you. In I Saw the TV Glow, Owen and Maddy type an intimate two-person fan membership round bodily media — first an episode information, then a VHS treasure trove of reruns and new installments she passes off to him every week. In the identical means that proudly owning a mixtape you can maintain in your arms linked you to the songs, these cable recordings develop into cherished objects for Owen, his private library of replayable favorites.

Eerie pink smoke billows from a green ice-cream truck in a still from I Saw the TV Glow.
I Saw the TV Glow A24 / A24

The filmmaker has cited their early devotion to Buffy as a key affect, and there’s additionally a good quantity of Twin Peaks within the doomy-surreal environment of I Saw the TV Glow. (Scenes set at a neighborhood watering gap boasting dwell performances by hip artists like Phoebe Bridgers and King Woman echo each seminal sequence.) But the movie appears much more indebted to a much less “cool” touchstone: the adolescent gateway programming of live-action Nickelodeon fare just like the kid-horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the high-school superhero cleaning soap The Secret World of Alex Mack, and the really offbeat teen sitcom The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Schoenbrun communes with the final of these most clearly: The spirit of Pete & Pete is there by way of a late pair of cameos, some fourth-wall-breaking narration, a common air of late-summer melancholia, and even the distinguished involvement of an ice cream truck driver.

But the movie isn’t after a straightforward hit of nostalgia. It’s not a “things only ’90s kids remember” Buzzfeed listicle. By Schoenbrun’s estimation, our early popular culture obsessions are inherently private. This was maybe very true in a time earlier than the online took fan tradition international: Without prompt entry to the ideas of 1000’s of true believers, we cast our personal particular, bizarre relationships to our weekly small-screen appointment viewing. This form of intense connection may distort the story in query, too. One of probably the most outstanding scenes in I Saw the TV Glow reveals the gap separating Owen’s awed, terrified, extremely subjective reminiscence of The Pink Opaque and what the present actually was. If something, the movie is in regards to the issues ’90s children miskeep in mind.

Schoenbrun hasn’t been shy in regards to the queer subtext. “I’m not making movies to explain being trans to anyone, I’m making movies for trans people,” they stated after a current Chicago screening. However seductively I Saw the TV Glow communicates the final affect formative media can assert on somebody’s sense of self, it’s extra profoundly and particularly about popular culture fandom as an oblique expression of gender dysphoria: Onto The Pink Opaque does Owen challenge a deeper longing to uncover the actual individual inside — a component that takes on undercurrents of tragedy because the movie ambles in the direction of its unusual, cathartic ultimate scenes. More than any sense of decade-specific displacement, that is what the film is after at its beating coronary heart.

Ian Foreman watches TV in a still in I Saw the TV Glow.
Ian Foreman in I Saw the TV Glow A24 / A24

But like James Joyce, Schoenbrun finds the common within the specific. I Saw the TV Glow is about transition in a number of respects; it appears to exist within the liminal area between gender identities, sure, but additionally centuries, cultural actions, life levels, and genres. Like so many movies about coming of age within the suburbs, it conveys the particular agony of being caught in a form of limbo — of being wedged between earlier than and after, right here and there, now and later, younger and outdated.

Maybe that feeling is very acute for elder millennials, the micro era to which Schoenbrun belongs. We are stated to be the one group of people that each grew up with the web and have vivid reminiscences of life with out it. A individuals who got here of age because the world got here on-line. I Saw the TV Glow is tuned to the frequency of our nice center zone, a ghost city of prime-time curiosities and the softcover guides we purchased to make sense of them. 

I Saw the TV Glow is now enjoying in choose theaters. For extra of A.A. Dowd’s writing, go to his Authory page.

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