‘I Saw the TV Glow’ Review: Justice Smith in a Knockout Teen Drama About Art, Obsession and Identity

Self-discovery can be a painful process, ripping apart everything you thought you knew about the world and your place in it. But even more painful and terrifying is the denial of self. Looking in the mirror and turning away from the truth staring right back at you. It’s hard to understand why we do it — if we only get one life, why not live it authentically? And what happens to us when we live with parts of ourselves sealed away? What kind of life is that? How can anyone love you when you’re never really there?

Owen (Justice Smith) is a gentle, soft-spoken teen, afraid to break out of his shell. He’s been that way since he was a child, growing up with his attentive mother (Danielle Deadwyler) and distant father (Fred Durst). Though he feels drawn to his mother, quietly admiring her beauty and emotional honesty, he seems afraid of his father. A masculine man of few words, Owen’s father haunts him like a malevolent specter. It’s the 90s in the suburbs, and the last thing Owen wants to be is different, but he is. His parents know it, even if it’s never discussed. He’s quiet, melancholy and uncomfortable in his own skin.

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When he meets cool older girl Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), Owen is introduced to The Pink Opaque, a young adult sci-fi show that airs late on Saturday nights. It’s about two teen girls who meet at sleepaway camp and realize they have a cosmic connection. Together, they are The Pink Opaque and they use their powers to fight against the evil Mr. Melancholy. Despite their bond, they live on different sides of the county, but they can sense each other through the glowing pink tattoos on the back of their necks. Tara (Lindsay Jordan) is the confident one who encourages the shy Isabel (Helena Howard) to harness her power. But Isabel is afraid of what’s inside her, struggling with the truth about who she is. Their friendship resembles Maddy and Owen’s, with Maddy trying to help Owen become the truest version of himself.

Owen is anxious, scared and awkward in his body. He speaks quietly, with much hesitation. It’s like he feels swallowed by the world around him, sleepwalking through life with only his friendship with Maddy and The Pink Opaque to look forward to. Soon, it’s hard to know where The Pink Opaque ends and they begin, as the show bleeds into their reality. Maddy embraces this new world they’ve made for themselves with TV, but Owen’s desires remain onscreen — he can never seem to act on them. When Maddy tells Owen that she likes girls and asks Owen what he likes, the response is avoidant: “I think that I like TV shows.”

Gazing intently at the screen, Owen escapes into the world of The Pink Opaque, focusing on Isabel. Though it’s never stated, she is the girl Owen longs to be — soft, feminine and emotional. But he takes great pains to close off that part of himself, letting it live only in the show. Then Maddy disappears, and the show is canceled, leaving Owen lost and alone. He begins to recede further into himself, running away from the life he really wants. What follows is a sad, nightmarish descent into intense self-denial, as the film becomes bolder and more abstract with provocative imagery in a style reminiscent of Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, an essential text of New Queer Cinema. Donnie Darko feels like an influence as well, as writer and director Jane Schoenbrun plays with time and space as Owen’s sanity slips away.

Justice Smith is phenomenal as Owen, giving an astonishing physical and emotional performance as a person so afraid of himself and the world that he allows his life to pass him by. He is the aching heart of the film, a tragic hero yearning to be a heroine. Ian Foreman — in a breakout performance — plays young Owen as his truest self: sensitive, observant and emotional. Their performances complement each other perfectly. Brigette Lundy-Paine plays Maddy with a magnetic confidence that glows as brightly as the TV screens in the film. This should be a star-making performance for them. It’s refreshing to see such talented queer actors in a film truly worthy of their gifts.

Schoenbrun crafts a dreamscape of the ’90s, with bold purples and blues, deep reds and an electric pink that radiates throughout the film. I Saw The TV Glow wears its influences on its sleeve: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Secret World of Alex Mack, Are You Afraid of the Dark? and The Adventures of Pete & Pete are among the shows that come to mind. In a key scene later in the film when Maddy returns, she takes Owen to a club that resembles Buffy’s The Bronze, sultry and dark with brooding energy. Alex G’s haunting soundtrack emulates the depressed, sonically chaotic sound of 90s rock, bolstered with performances from recent indie acts Sloppy Jane, Phoebe Bridgers and King Woman. At times, the film feels like a musical nightmare full of sadness and raw angst.

I Saw The TV Glow is about the places we escape to when we don’t feel at home in the real world and the brutal truth that even fantasy has its limits. The shows we love can be a balm — a life raft when we’re drowning in uncertainty about who we are and where we’ll end up. But they can’t save us, at least not for long. Media can help us get to know ourselves, but when the show ends and the TV is turned off, life remains. And we are forced to live it, with all the messiness and pain that comes with it.

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