Tuesday, May 14, 2024

I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Nick at Nite and the WB: On Jane Schoenbrun’s '90s-Damaged I Saw the TV Glow

(Jane Schoenbrun, USA, 2024, 100 minutes) 

Maddy: Do you like girls? 
Owen: I don't know. 
Maddy: Boys? 
Owen: I- I- I think that, I like TV shows.

In Jane Schoenbrun's 2021 narrative debut, We're All Going to the World's Fair, which was set in the present day, a young woman (Anna Cobb) finds community, connection, and a sense of self through the internet. 

In their more ambitious follow-up, I Saw the TV Glow, set primarily in the 1990s, a young man finds something similar through television, specifically a Saturday night TV show called The Pink Opaque, a title Schoenbrun swiped from a 1986 compilation album from ethereal Scots trio the Cocteau Twins (the filmmaker self-released their first feature, A Self-Induced Hallucination, a found footage documentary about the Slenderman, in 2018). 

They're as different, and as similar, as two films can be. One character is a white woman, and the other is a Black man, though Owen (played by Ian Foreman as a kid and The Get Down's Justice Smith as an adult) finds Pink Opaque fandom through Maddy (Atypical's Brigette Lundy-Paine), a white woman who is older, cooler, more self-possessed, and also more troubled. Owen is initially too young and too naïve to find the world quite so troubling, but he craves connection, and doesn't appear to have any friends. 

Schoenbrun's screenplay never suggests that race is an issue, but it's possible that Owen's biracial identity, combined with his asthma–and later, gender dysphoria–has contributed to his feelings of isolation in a vanilla New Jersey suburb like the one of Schoenbrun's youth. Though his mother (Danielle Deadwyler, an Oscar nominee for 2022's Till) is supportive, her health is in rapid decline, while his bullet-headed father is a judgmental disciplinarian (in a provocative bit of casting, Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst, a man once notorious for his homophobic slurs, plays his father).

Owen spots Maddy at school, during an after-hours Election Day event, while engrossed in an episode guide to The Pink Opaque

He's aware of the show, which airs on the Young Adult Network, but it's on after his bedtime, so he's never seen it, though the promotional spots featuring Isabel (Helena Howard, a standout in Josephine Decker's excellent Madeline's Madeline) and Tara (Snail Mail singer and first-time actress Lindsey Jordan) have captured his imagination. It's a TV show, not real life, but that's no deterrent as it offers the promise of something better: a world in which two attractive teenagers, one Black and one white, vanquish a new monster each week. 

Owen and Maddy don't become friends exactly, but she helps him find a way to see the show, and he becomes equally hooked. Just as Alexander Payne shot The Holdovers, which is set in 1971, to look like a film from that era, Schoenbrun has done something similar with I Saw the TV Glow by shooting in 35mm, contributing to the hazy, slightly surrealistic effect. 

There's a difference, though, in that Payne didn't actually shoot in 35mm, but worked with a DP and colorist who manipulated the digital imagery to make it appear as if he did, whereas Schoenbrun even employed VHS and Betamax transfers to age and distort the excerpts from The Pink Opaque

When Maddy disappears from his life without a trace--only to return years later in a different guise--Owen is left on his own to figure things out. In real life, he doesn't have a Tara by his side to help him battle the monsters of everyday existence, and as he grows into adulthood, he comes to realize that nostalgia has colored his memories of The Pink Opaque. What seemed so profound when he was young now seems kind of silly.

But Schoenbrun isn’t necessarily saying that nostalgia is silly. If anything, their film is steeped in nostalgia, specifically their nostalgia for the 1990s, a decade in which Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered first as a minor motion picture and then as a treasured TV show on the upstart WB network with a rich mythology featuring high school girls and boys (some gay), monsters (not all unfriendly), and caring mentors, like Anthony Head's Giles–would that we all had a Giles in our lives when we needed one most.

Schoenbrun ups the ante with a melancholy soundtrack featuring contemporary artists, including Caroline Polachek and Pheobe Bridgers, performing 16 songs on screen that incorporate musical and thematic references to the 1990s. Though they have cited the music sequences in Buffy and Beverly Hills 90210 as influences, I was reminded more of the roadhouse performances that ended each episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. Look sharp, and you'll also spot cast members from Buffy and Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which featured musicians Syd Straw, Michael Stipe, and Iggy Pop--as a cardigan-clad suburban dad. 

For a trans narrative, I Saw the TV Glow is the opposite of didactic or heavy-handed, though Schoenbrun, in the Q&A after the SIFF screening, made it crystal clear that that's exactly what it is--a trans narrative--and the same was true of their first feature; it's just that they were at different points along their trans journey while making each one. 
Nonetheless, there is no "aha moment" when Owen realizes he is trans. Not to give too much away, but the tragedy is that he never really does. Or to put it another way, he does have the so-called egg-crack moment, but he doesn't quite know how to interpret or act on the realization. It just freaks him out.

The lack of closure to The Pink Opaque, which ended on a claustrophobic cliffhanger, and, more significantly, the lack of Owen's own happy ending has led many observers to describe I Saw the TV Glow as a horror film–and not just because of the mall-goth, Hot Topic-on-psylicibon vibe–though there is no "big bad" outside of the TV show. His father comes close, I suppose, but in the end the scariest monster of all isn't a vampire or a werewolf, but rather Owen's seemingly immutable inability to embrace his true self.

For all its lovingly-crafted aesthetic qualities, I found this a deeply sad film.

For a more personal take on the film, Seattle Film Critics Society member Sara Michelle Fetters (MovieFreak, Seattle Gay News) has a great one here.

I Saw the TV Glow opens in Seattle at Pacific Place, Thornton Place, and other AMC/Regal theaters on Thurs, May 16, and at the Uptown on Fri, May 24. Images from the IMDb (Justice Smith), A24 via Movie Insider (Lindsey Jordan and Helena Howard), Decider (Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine), and my cell phone (Jane Schoenbrun at the Egyptian on May 10, 2024).

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