SXSW 2024: I Saw the TV Glow – a theme lost in a disjoined mess

Jane Schoenbrun’s ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ ambitiously attempts to explore themes of transgender self-actualization and the allure of escapist media. However, despite its lofty aspirations, the movie ultimately needs to catch up, delivering a messy and disjointed viewing experience. The film premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival before it screened at SXSW 2024, with director Schoenbrun and the talented cast in attendance. However, as the credits rolled, it became evident that the film failed to deliver on its promise, getting lost in the weird decisions to stylistically and metaphorically explore the subject.  Schoenbrun fails to create a viable and connective thread that I, for one, could follow. Instead, my guest and I felt confused and totally disconnected.

From the outset, Schoenbrun’s defining cinematic preoccupation is evident: the impact of digital culture on the psyche of young people. In this case, the protagonist, Owen (Justice Smith), finds solace in the world of a supernatural television show, “The Pink Opaque,” which becomes a refuge from the mundanity of his suburban existence. Alongside his friend Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), Owen becomes increasingly immersed in the show’s mythology, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

While the premise holds promise, the execution is where “I Saw the TV Glow” falters. Schoenbrun’s attempt to evoke the disorienting experience of gender dysphoria through surreal imagery and genre tropes often feels heavy-handed and contrived. The film’s reliance on horror elements detracts from the emotional core of the story, undermining Smith’s earnest performance as Owen grapples with his identity.

Furthermore, the narrative structure of the film contributes to its overall sense of confusion. Schoenbrun oscillates between different time periods in Owen’s life, from his teenage years to his adulthood, without providing clear transitions or context. This disjointed approach leaves the viewer disoriented and disconnected from the characters’ experiences, hindering their ability to fully invest in the story.

Despite its thematic ambition, ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ struggles to strike a cohesive balance between style and substance. While there are moments of visual flair and emotional resonance, they are overshadowed by the film’s haphazard execution and lack of narrative focus. As a result, the metaphorical efforts fall short, leaving audiences feeling more perplexed than enlightened by the film’s message.

While Jane Schoenbrun’s ‘I Saw the TV Glow’ may have garnered admiring reviews at Sundance and even from SXSW audiences, it ultimately fails to live up to its potential as far as I am concerned. Despite its innovative premise and strong performances, the film’s disjointed storytelling and heavy-handed symbolism undermine its impact, leaving some viewers frustrated and unsatisfied.

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