I Saw the TV Glow Is a Fascinating Trans Metaphor, But Not Much Else

Movies Reviews Jane Schoenbrun
I Saw the TV Glow Is a Fascinating Trans Metaphor, But Not Much Else

I Saw the TV Glow is a really easy film to want to root for. Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun has been given an almost unprecedented amount of creative control for an openly transgender filmmaker on a major platform (though A24 still isn’t on the level of Lana Wachowski making The Matrix Resurrections at WB), and Schoenbrun’s trans identity impacts the story they wish to tell in undeniably compelling ways. The trans community has often been marginalized throughout cinematic history, with movies’ often harmful representation shaping public perception. The majority of trans-relevant themes gleaned from mainstays of popular cinema are largely unintended by cisgender filmmakers to appeal specifically to that community. Schoenbrun certainly has contemporaries, such as Vera Drew (The People’s Joker) and Alice Miao Mackay (So Vam, T-Blockers), but the relative high profile of I Saw the TV Glow makes it something of a unicorn, the mythical vessel for a transgender film critic to finally see some of their specific experiences reflected back at them through the power of well-funded auteurist cinema. Why, then, does I Saw the TV Glow feel so insubstantial?

Schoenbrun’s film follows Owen (initially played by Ian Foreman before aging into Justice Smith for the majority of the runtime), a kid floating through the ennui-infused haze of his late-’90s suburban upbringing. He meets Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a high schooler obsessed with the TV show The Pink Opaque, which reads like a Nickelodeon SNICK show filtered through the monster-of-the-week sensibilities of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Owen has longed to watch the show himself, but it always airs after his bedtime, prompting him to sneak over to Maddy’s house for a surreptitious watch party sleepover. Thus begins a fixation where the lines of the show’s reality and the unreal malaise of Owen’s daily existence start to dissolve, begging questions of identity and repression in a world that seems gradually more hostile for its banality.

To delve much deeper into the film’s sparse plot would be to deconstruct the mystery of its central metaphor, but if there is one thing that Schoenbrun excels at, it is empathetically communicating transgender experience through cinematic language instead of direct representation. There’s a pervasive sense that nothing fits together in Owen’s world, that he’s outside his own life looking into a reality that is wrong for him to inhabit. His attraction to The Pink Opaque, a show targeted at teenage girls, is an unspoken masculine taboo, and his initial interactions with Maddy are of an outsider desiring connection with someone who shares his fixated interest, a compulsion that even he doesn’t fully understand. Eventual discussions of claiming hidden selves and the suffocating feeling of failing to embrace that truth are emblematic of why people transition at all, and if I Saw the TV Glow is to be considered a horror film, that horror is entirely existential, the terror of lost personhood in the prison of suburban comfort.

This is portrayed through a surreal, neon-infused filter that blends middle-class normalcy with the lo-fi Canadian aesthetic of late ’90s television, complete with an original soundtrack reminiscent of the weekly musical performances found on many shows of the era, reinforcing Owen’s conception that the show is more real to him than his daily life. That’s a level of dissociation that will be familiar for many transgender folks, and to see that experience affirmed and reflected in a widely released theatrical film is absolutely unique. It bears repeating that I Saw the TV Glow is historic in that sense, and for that reason alone it is worth commending as a way for trans people to connect with themselves and process a pain they may not realize even exists. 

And for many, that may be enough. That’s a laudable goal, and it is nominally accomplished. But there’s also a nagging sense that I Saw the TV Glow is so preoccupied with its metaphor, so indulgent as a piece of transgender therapy, that its function as a story is more than a bit anemic.

Owen is, by design, an extremely passive protagonist, so much so that it’s hard to consider him a participant in the events he narrates. In fact, Owen is so withdrawn, so unwilling or incapable of action, that he arguably doesn’t even have a character arc, coasting by as a protracted embodiment of ennui. This may be thematically appropriate, both with regards to transgender repression and television pastiche, but it makes for a frustrating viewing experience where one is constantly waiting for Owen to take his feelings and finally do something, anything at all. Not every story needs to follow the hero’s journey, but it’s a bold choice to craft a main character who does nothing but reject the call to adventure. Poignant? Perhaps. Entertaining? Less so.

Anyone familiar with Schoenbrun’s previous film, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, is aware that their directorial eye trends towards the enigmatic, a divisive style that at least provides opportunity for storytelling to be less than literal. Those impulses are tempered somewhat here, but they feed into a tendency for the film to drag its narrative heels on the strength of its aesthetics and themes, only to later explain itself in increasingly obvious and overwrought ways. Perhaps the most cloying example is a monologue delivered by Maddy in an inflatable planetarium, in which they artfully and painstakingly explain a series of off-screen events and their relationship to the expanded mythology of The Pink Opaque. Lundy-Paine does a fantastic job with the material, walking a tightrope between dissociative monotone and bottled frantic excitement that is unsettling for both Owen and the audience, but the words themselves are a rambling diatribe that lays bare the plot’s central mystery with an almost juvenile pride at its cleverness. The amount of thought put into the mechanics of a fictional show within the film’s metaphor is laudable, but by neither tipping into further esoterica or actively indulging the plot mechanics of the shows it pastiches, the story is paralyzed by its lack of commitment to anything more than its premise.

This places I Saw the TV Glow in the awkward position of being both over- and underdeveloped, taking a powerful meditation on the relationship of trans people to the formative art they consume and trapping it in a shell that does nothing to explore that theme except as a shallow proclamation of its own existence. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to like about the film as a compilation of isolated elements, not the least of which is that central metaphor. A transgender filmmaker laying bare these specific emotions for a general audience to empathize with is undoubtedly a cause for celebration. It’s just hard to escape the nagging feeling that we could be celebrating something more substantial.

Director: Jane Schoenbrun
Writer: Jane Schoenbrun
Starring: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Ian Foreman, Helena Howard, Fred Durst, Danielle Deadwyler
Release Date: May 3, 2024

Leigh Monson is a writer based in St Paul, MN. Attorney by day, cinephile by night, Leigh’s obsessions include queer theory, schlock horror, and reading the book versions of every film adaptation they can find. They’re @LeighMonsonPBF on Twitter, but their choicest thoughts are on Letterboxd as @LMonson.

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