Review | I Saw the TV Glow | 2024

 (L-R) Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in I SAW THE TV GLOW. Courtesy of A24.

Jane Schoenbrun's I Saw the TV Glow is ostensibly a film about the bonds created by the communal act of watching favorite TV shows. These are the kinds of deeply personal cult hits that feel as though they're made just for you; like a secret shared amongst friends that not only defines you but gives you an identity as a member of an exclusive club in which minutiae and trivia become a kind of language only the initiated can understand.

This is an experience and a media landscape that streaming has all but destroyed. But as many of my fellow transgender critics have already pointed out, I Saw the TV Glow isn't just about the shared love of beloved television shows; it's about nothing less than the trans experience itself. Told through the lens of two disaffected teenagers  in the 1990s who grow up worshipping a late-night young adult show called  "The Pink Opaque," I Saw the TV Glow examines a kind of unique communal experience that speaks of some kind of yearning bubbling just beneath the surface. 

Before I came out as transgender, I was often plagued by the feeling that the person I was to the world wasn't the person I was meant to be. As a child, I'd always felt like a girl - and I said as much, many times. But it was something I was told to suppress, not to say aloud, so I buried it deep. The result was decades of feeling almost like an avatar of myself, a character in a movie I was watching but never fully participating in. Schoenbrun, who is also trans, has expressed something almost indescribable here - an indelible encapsulation of the feeling of not fitting inside your own skin. Their characters are seemingly adrift in life, but find meaning and purpose through "The Pink Opaque" in ways that some understand and use to blossom into their own, and others miss completely, still believing it's just a TV show, despite the constant, nagging sense that it's actually so much more. 

It's a feeling that trans folks will undoubtedly find achingly familiar - the sensation of suffocating inside your own body, plagued by a kind of phantom sensation of something missing, like the lingering memory of someone who doesn't exist. That nagging sense that we don't belong here, that who we seem to be isn't really who we are, and that the only choices are escape from that mental bondage or die; or perhaps an even more horrifying prospect, playing it safe and waste away never knowing.

Ian Foreman in I SAW THE TV GLOW. Photo by Spencer Pazer. Courtesy of A24.

I Saw the TV Glow is just such an overwhelming sensory and emotional experience. Like the TV show at its heart, it has become a kind of communal experience amongst trans people that has been incredibly special to watch. To see so many people feel so seen by this has been validating in ways that are almost impossible to articulate. It's as though Schoenbrun has captured the very feeling of what it's like to be transgender, as if someone opened up my heart and saw that TV glow. That little girl whom the world once saw as a boy and wanted so badly to be seen as someone else, to embrace media meant "for girls," to become the woman she idolized on the screen, felt so deeply seen. That I am not the only one to feel this warmth amongst the neon-lit unease of Schoenbrun's haunted, harrowing masterpiece of communal anxiety feels somehow revelatory. 

Schoenbrun, who previously dealt with the disquieting landscape of the shadowy corners of our shared media in their first two films, A Self-Induced Hallucination (2018) and We're All Going to the World's Fair (2021), has announced themselves as a generational talent; a foremost chronicler of the trans experience who has crafted something major. I Saw the TV Glow is at once troubled and hopeful, moody and inspiring; a howl of grief for those who haven't yet found themselves, and a deep, warm hug for those who saw the TV glow and successfully escaped into the embrace of the pink opaque. It is a film for which I am endlessly grateful.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four) 

I SAW THE TV GLOW | Directed by Jane Schoenbrun | Stars Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Lindsey Jordan, Danielle Deadwyler, Fred Durst | Rated PG-13 for violent content, some sexual material, thematic elements and teen smoking | Now playing in select theaters nationwide.


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