Review: I Saw the TV Glow Blends a Stark Visual Style with a Compelling, Creepy Teenage Story

Under its super-charged surface story of an obsessed young fan of a TV show, I Saw the TV Glow has a great deal going on, including the story of an identity transformation that some might mistake for mental illness to the very amusing idea that shows we loved as kids are actually terrible, cheaply made, brain-dead nonsense.

The latest from writer-director Jane Schoenbrun (We’re All Going to the World’s Fair) tells the story of teenager Owen (Justice Smith) who grows up in a household with an abusive father and dying mother (Danielle Deadwyler). He’s just trying to survive when he meets an older classmate (Brigette Lundy-Pain) who introduces him to a late-night show, Pink Opaque, which airs on a kids channel but is clearly made for more sophisticated sci-fi/fantasy/horror fans. Owen’s new friend is not only convinced this show is the greatest one ever produced, but she thinks that the storyline reveals the presence of a supernatural world just below the surface of our own existence. And before too long, Owen believes the same.

Smith does a remarkable job showing us Owen’s vulnerabilities, especially when, as an adult, he begins to doubt his own memories—not just of the series but also of what's out there trying to hurt or kill him and his friend, who vanishes from town just weeks before the series is cancelled. Naturally, the only way to stop whatever is about to happen to humanity is to make new episodes of the show.

I Saw the TV Glow goes beyond just being trippy to actually transforming its characters into paranoid, possibly dangerous, soldiers in the fight to stop some sort of takeover of the planet, their bodies, or whatever exactly is happening. Schoenbrun’s visual artistry is on full display, as it was in their previous film, complete with neon-soaked lighting scenarios. Paired with an impressive sound design, the film, though still grounded in reality, takes a fantastical look at the fluid teenage brain, and it is, at times, terrifying.

The film is now playing in select theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.