More Real Than Real Life: I Saw the TV Glow (2024) - Reviewed

Images Courtesy of A24

One of the critical transition points in the journey to adulthood is the realization that the magic and wonder of youth diminish with age. During childhood, it is easy to fall into fantasy worlds headfirst and immerse oneself completely in a fake universe. Eventually, these obsessions fade into the misty realm of memories and become more like half-remembered dreams. Many of us can recall wondering if a show we watched or a book we read was only in our imagination, then later being startled by seeing a clip or an excerpt and then feeling the violent tug of nostalgia in our hearts. 

The film follows a young boy named Owen (Ian Foreman with the older version played by Justice Smith), who is introverted and withdrawn. His path crosses with Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a slightly older girl at his school who is fascinated with a TV show called The Pink Opaque, which features psychically linked teenage girls who use their special powers to battle the minions of Mr. Melancholy. Similar to series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sailor Moon, The Pink Opaque has monsters-of-week and intricate lore, which immediately piques Owen's interest. Owen's parents have a strict curfew, so under the pretense of sleeping over at a friend's house, he stays at Maddy's place so they can watch the show together. This moment connects them forever, and the rest of the film explores the show's impact on their friendship and their perception of reality.

I Saw the TV Glow (2024) delves into the complex relationship between memory and nostalgia. In her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym explores two types of nostalgia: reflective and restorative. Reflective nostalgia dwells in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance, while restorative nostalgia emphasizes rebuilding the lost home and patching up the memory gaps. This exploration of nostalgia adds depth and complexity to the film's narrative, making it a thought-provoking watch. 

Owen represents the reflective iteration throughout the narrative as he is consumed by regret and anxiety over the loss of his childhood, figuratively and literally being suffocated by the daily grind of boredom and the emptiness of the suburbs. On the other hand, Maddy encompasses restorative nostalgia, though initially, her life goes the same route as Owen's; she fights through the mundanity and refuses to give up, using the power of her memories to forge a new existence. The push and pull between Owen and Maddy's worldviews shape the story's atmosphere and impart a bittersweet beauty and melancholy feeling. Jane Schoenbrun's middle-aged Millennial angst is woven throughout the film, throbbing like a toothache in the middle of the night with no relief.

Underneath all of this stylization is an allegory about trans and non-binary identity and the feeling of being forced to exist in a body that differs from one's perception of oneself in the mind's eye. While Maddy embraces her true self, Owen fights this feeling, living in agony. The reality of The Pink Opaque and real life have merged into one, mixing their contents into a blur. Schoenbrun effortlessly plays with '90s aesthetics, switching between the HD widescreen look of the real world and the fuzzy VHS tape 4:3 aspect ratio of the fictional show. It is a hyper-stylized version of the '90s, with some trippy effects added to spice things up.

I Saw the TV Glow channels a surreal and nightmarish mid-nineties Nickelodeon with a dash of coming-of-age. It's incredibly earnest, high-concept, and personal and is a singular and occasionally impenetrable work of art.

--Michelle Kisner