I Saw the TV Glow
Photograph: Berlin Film Festival
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Review

I Saw the TV Glow

4 out of 5 stars

‘Buffy’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ collide in a vivid teen mystery horror with a trans twist

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Time Out says

With their second feature I Saw the TV Glow, writer-director Jane Schoenbrun delivers a memorable, strange and satisfying teen horror-mystery. Owing much to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and plenty, if slightly less, to the wilder, weirder imagery of Twin Peaks, it’s a rare film that wears its influences on its sleeve while still feeling totally fresh.

We meet 12-year-old, mixed-race Owen (played at this point by Ian Foreman) in the late ’90s, where he struggles to make friends and has a pretty miserable home life, despite the support of his mum Brenda (Danielle Deadwyler). One evening after school in a dark cafeteria Owen meets Maddy (Atypical’s Brigette Lundy-Paine), who’s reading an episode guide to her favourite TV series, ‘The Pink Opaque’. A tentative friendship develops as Maddy introduces Owen to this Buffy-style show when he stays over one Saturday night, having told Brenda he was staying elsewhere.

Two years later, Owen (now played by Justice Smith) is as much an addict of the show as Maddy. The film casts a really interesting gaze at the nature of fandom, observing that a shared love of pop culture can bring people together, but also pull them into bizarre, toxic spaces.

It owes a lot to Buffy and plenty to the wilder, weirder imagery of Twin Peaks

Images and scenes from the show real and imagined by Owen flit in and out of the film in an intoxicating fashion – one night shot of an ice-cream van is a thing of noirish beauty, but the vendor of the icy treats is a monstrous creature. Maddy goes missing, only to reappear years later. The friends reunite, but it’s an uneasy bond, perhaps even a relationship of convenience between two troubled people.

Schoenbrun, a trans, non-binary filmmaker, describes the film as being about ‘the egg crack’: the moment a person realises they’re trans after years of uncertainty and self-examination. It’s a vividly personal work, full of tough memories translated into neon nightmares, with an arresting visual palette and occasionally abrasive sound design that may put off the less adventurous.

Three big names that weren’t: former Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst, who appears as Frank, Owen’s disapproving father; Phoebe Bridgers, who contributes music and appears singing it; and Emma Stone, one of the producers. They backed Schoenbrun to make the step up from their 2021 debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – and with real justification. Lou Thomas

In US theaters May 3.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Jane Schoenbrun
  • Screenwriter:Jane Schoenbrun
  • Cast:
    • Justice Smith
    • Ian Foreman
    • Danielle Deadwyler
    • Fred Durst
    • Brigette Lundy-Paine
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