Sundance 2024 Film Review: I Saw The TV Glow

About 30 seconds before I Saw the TV Glow ended, I thought “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if they just ended the movie here?” And then they did. My partner leaned over to me and whispered “I’m glad you’re reviewing this one and not me.” But let’s back up and introduce the film before I get into why reviewing the film was a bit of a challenge. 

I Saw the TV Glow (written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun) is A24’s newest Sundance offering. The indie studio is known for critically acclaimed movies like Under the Skin, The Witch, Moonlight and Hereditary, among others. A24 films are regarded as films to have a very quiet, very slow build-up that leads to very powerful and explosive climaxes.

This film follows Owen (played by Ian Foreman as the young Owen and Justice Smith for all other ages of Owen), a lonely, social outcast who struggles to connect or communicate with anyone outside his mother and his TV. The movie begins in 1996 when Owen is a seventh grader. He meets a ninth grader named Maddy (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine) who similarly doesn’t fit into the standard social structures of junior high, only she has found solace and purpose and hope in a late-night, young adult, magical thriller TV show, titled The Pink Opaque (think Buffy The Vampire Slayer by way of Nickelodeon). They bond over the show and, as the schooling years continue, they pour so much of themselves and their identities into their love and fandom of the show that the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur. As they enter adulthood, the blurring of those lines leads to a surrealist nightmare of uncertain reality. 

And, sadly, that explanation of the film’s plot is more coherent and complete than the film. About an hour into this 90-minute movie, a narrative event happened that provided some (badly needed) direction for the film, which then it failed to capitalize on for the remainder. Knowing I was watching an A24 movie, I was prepared to have patience until we got to the climax, but that patience was never rewarded. I was holding out hope of a much stronger experience until the credits started rolling and I realized it was over. 

When we describe surreal horror in films, the term often used is “Lynchian”—which comes from the works of auteur David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Mullholland Drive)—whose brand of surrealism, absurdism and horror is so distinct and powerful, he is synonymous with a genre of horror. Lynch builds his films and series around visceral emotions, never explaining what’s happening, but evoking a powerful feeling as you watch inexplicable things happen. I Saw the TV Glow struggles to elicit any clear feeling or emotion while feeling like it doesn’t have much to say. The most oft-repeated idea in the film is that life after adolescence speeds up as the weeks collapse into months and months become years and years a lifetime in the blink of an eye. After much debate and discussion, I came to the conclusion that this concept is one a lot of people encounter in their mid-twenties as they graduate from college and enter the workforce. Life becomes repetitive and banal and time speeds up like a runaway train. There’s no point or purpose and as we fight to hold onto what felt important when we were younger, we find ourselves unfulfilled and hollow. But even that idea is never really explored as much as it’s hinted at. 

Though it struggles with narrative resonance, the technical aspects of the film are fantastic. Justice Smith (currently the go-to actor for neurotic, nervous young adult roles) has moments of powerful and raw emotion, tapping into a primal energy and fear. As the movie crescendos almost randomly at the end, Justice lets out a chilling barrage of visceral screams that left my skin prickling. Brigette Lundy-Pain’s performance is a standout, for me, even under an assortment of bad wigs. In the latter half of the movie, her character reemerges and gives a far-too-long monologue that, while indulgent and repetitive, is delivered in such a mesmerizing and commanding way that I was transfixed the entire time. These instances of deep and unsettling pain make me wish they were given a more coherent (whether narratively or emotionally or both) film to perform in. 

The cinematography is dark with deep neon colors, making the visual imagery of the surrealism beautiful and dread-inducing. Within the movie, we switch back and forth from episodes of The Pink Opaque to the real world of the film and the look of the mid-nineties network tween sitcom is pitch-perfect and left me chuckling many times. In fact, the mythology developed for the TV show was fascinating enough, I wanted it to crossover more into the film the entire time. 

The sound design is fantastic. Its loud, obtrusive and painful noise disrupts the quiet scenes at the best moments. I found myself covering or plugging my ears at times, but I also loved how effective and unnerving the sound was used in the film. 

And even for all the areas of the film where I feel it didn’t work, there were individual scenes and moments that were powerful in isolation—segments of brilliance and raw creative energy that, even if they weren’t working as a whole, were signs of genuine talent and craft. 

All in all, if you’re a surrealist horror fan, you’re going to want to give this a watch, as part of your 2024 Sundance Film Festival selection. There are moments in the film that hit the tone of that genre so well, even if, as a whole, it falls short of the greats. If you’re not a fan, this film isn’t going to convert you. In fact, it’ll probably leave you really frustrated and bewildered. When it abruptly ended, I was left laughing because I knew how upsetting the ending would be to most audience members. The difficulty in reviewing this movie is trying to make sense of a film that perhaps doesn’t quite know what it was trying to say or do. 

Phillip Sevy
Phillip Sevy
Phillip Sevy is a writer/artist who has had work published by Dark Horse Comics (Triage, The House, Tomb Raider), Image Comics (The Freeze, The Tithe), and others (Paradox). When he's not at his computer working, he's planning one of the many D&D games he runs.

Similar Articles