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A television show’s fantasy world pulls in Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine in I Saw the TV Glow. Courtesy A24 Films

Who do we have in the way of trans filmmakers? We’ve had the Wachowski siblings, and now we have Jane Schoenbrun, who’s transfeminine and nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. Their 2021 creepypasta horror film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair rather went over my head, but I still saw a director of talent behind the camera. Now they have a bigger, more accessible film called I Saw the TV Glow that brings the dislocation of gender dysphoria to hundreds of screens in an ethereal, nightmarish way that other trans movies do not. If that does nothing for you, it’s also a movie about being a fan of a TV show, something many more of us are familiar with. Either way, it’s a work of unsettling power.

The story begins in 1996, when seventh-grader Owen (Ian Foreman) meets high-school freshman Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), and they bond over their fascination with The Pink Opaque, a supernatural teen TV drama that airs on Saturday nights. Two years later, Maddy suddenly vanishes around the same time that Owen’s mother (Danielle Deadwyler) dies of cancer and the show is canceled. In 2006, Maddy just as abruptly reappears to adult Owen (Justice Smith), and she is altered in some worrying ways.

Schoenbrun may just be the most alienated filmmaker I’ve seen, and I’ve seen some doozies. If gender dysphoria is what happens when the identity in the mind and the physical body do not match up, the characters here seem afflicted by a similar but even deeper disconnect. You can see how The Pink Opaque might appeal as an escape for both these kids, as Maddy is a lesbian whose mother ignores her and whose stepfather beats her. (She asks Owen whether he’s into boys or girls, and he responds, “I like TV shows.” Cute as an evasion tactic but not so great when it becomes a life philosophy.) The angular, incisive Lundy-Paine (a nonbinary actress and a Dallas native) conjures some fearsome conviction as the grown-up Maddy, who insists that The Pink Opaque is real and conflates her own identity with the show’s monster-battling teenage heroine (Helena Howard).

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Like me, Schoenbrun clearly watched lots of Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in its day. In the scenes from The Pink Opaque, the director mimics Joss Whedon’s brilliantly innovative show down to the font used for the opening credits and the color distortion on the videotaped episodes that Maddy makes for Owen. The Pink Opaque has a character named Tara (Lindsey Jordan), and I Saw the TV Glow casts Amber Benson, who played a character named Tara on Buffy. Dave McCary — a producer on this film along with his wife, Emma Stone — previously directed his own movie called Brigsby Bear, whose much sunnier take on TV fandom contrasts compellingly with this film’s.

As Owen grows into a middle-aged man in the present day, he proclaims that he knows that life isn’t The Pink Opaque and that he loves his family (whom we never see), but the movie sticks so close to his point of view that we can’t trust him or his fourth wall-breaking narration. He has a screaming breakdown at a kid’s birthday party at the video arcade where he works. “Help me, I’m dying!” is the cry not of a man in mourning for a TV show but rather for the younger self who responded so powerfully to it that nothing in his life has matched it.

Of course, Schoenbrun isn’t the first fiction writer to warn us that fiction and its seductions might unmoor us from real life. (Indeed, Buffy devoted an episode to the idea that the entire series was taking place in the mind of a confined mental patient.) Still, the movie’s tube-lit view of suburban America makes a convincing backdrop for its portrait of disaffection. Schoenbrun’s eye for a striking visual punches things up, too, as when they give us a soft-serve ice cream monster and a shot of Owen’s head smashed through a TV screen while his father (played by Limp Bizkit frontman/film director Fred Durst) tries to pull him out. I Saw the TV Glow isn’t scary enough to satisfy moviegoers looking for a more conventional horror flick, but when you leave the theater, you may find this film following you home and staring at you balefully from the darkness.

I Saw the TV Glow
Starring Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine. Written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun. Rated PG-13.

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