'I Saw the TV Glow' is weird and transfixing : Pop Culture Happy Hour I Saw the TV Glow is a strange and pleasantly unsettling new film from writer and director Jane Schoenbrun. It's about two teenagers (Justice Smith and Brigette Lundy-Paine) who bond so strongly over a cult monster-of-the-week TV show that it becomes their entire identities. When the show gets canceled, their bond dissolves – until years later, when one of the teens sweeps back into the other's life, bearing secret knowledge that could change everything.

'I Saw the TV Glow' is weird and transfixing

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

"I Saw The TV Glow" is a strange and pleasantly unsettling new film. It's about two teenagers who bond so strongly over a cult monster-of-the-week TV show that becomes their entire identities.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

When the show gets canceled, their bond dissolves until years later, when one of the teens sweeps back into the other's life, bearing secret knowledge that could change everything. I'm Glen Weldon.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today, we're talking about "I Saw The TV Glow" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

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HARRIS: Joining me and Glen today is "Switched On Pop" producer Reanna Cruz. Hey, Reanna.

REANNA CRUZ: Howdy.

HARRIS: And making his POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR debut is Liam McBain, a producer on NPR's IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Yay. Liam, welcome.

LIAM MCBAIN, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

HARRIS: Yes, it's so great to have you here, and we always love having a new guest. So thank you for joining us. Well, "I Saw The TV Glow" is kind of difficult to talk about. It's a movie that reveals what it's really about very deliberately and incrementally. So we'll start off by giving some of our general impressions, and then we'll let you know when we are about to cross over into spoiler territory.

So, to start with, "I Saw The TV Glow" is the story of Owen. He's played by Ian Foreman as a seventh-grader and by Justice Smith from high school on. Owen's an anxious kid living in a nondescript suburb in the 1990s - sounds very familiar to my upbringing, funny enough. He meets a dark, mysterious girl named Maddy, who's obsessed with a fictional TV show called "The Pink Opaque." She's played by Brigette Lundy-Paine.

Now, "The Pink Opaque" is about two teenage girls who communicate telepathically to fight various monsters - think "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," "Are You Afraid Of The Dark?" "Charmed" and so on - '90s kids will know all of these references. And Owen and Maddy grow close over their intense love for "The Pink Opaque." But when the show gets canceled, Owen is left alone and cut off from a vital part of himself. "I Saw The TV Glow" was written and directed by Jane Schoenbrun, and it's in theaters now. Reanna, I hear that you are kind of into this movie. So let's start with you.

CRUZ: Yeah. I mean, I talked about this with my partner, and I think to enjoy this movie is to be deeply affected by it. Like, I wouldn't say I liked it or I loved it, but it deeply, deeply affected me. And the only thing there is to say is that it left me at a sincere loss for words. I think this movie is messy. I think it's overstuffed. And yet at the same time, I think it's near perfect and says what it needs to say so fully and clearly.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CRUZ: And there are images in this movie that I've thought about every single day since I originally saw it. I have had nightmares about this movie, and my friends have, as well.

HARRIS: Wow.

CRUZ: I think it's a deeply terrifying movie in a way that acts as a mirror. I think it does what really great psychological horror does, where it reflects your worst fears onto the screen, and that's what's scary. I thought it was a really, really great film.

HARRIS: All right. Well, we might maybe get into those scary parts when we get into the spoilers. But first, Liam, I also want to hear from you. What did you think of "I Saw The TV Glow?"

MCBAIN: I mean, I think that's a great way to put it - that to enjoy this film is to be deeply affected by it. And I was. I was openly weeping by the end of the movie, and I didn't stop for a couple hours, honestly, after it ended. It, like, spoke to me in a way that I feel rarely spoken to in art. I mean, I also just thought, like, it was really inventive. Like, a lot of the actual, like, directing and image-making was really inventive. And there was just a lot there that felt fresh. And it was - it felt surprising. And that's one of the best things that I think art can...

HARRIS: Yeah.

MCBAIN: ...Do is surprise you. Like Reanna said, it did feel a little bit overstuffed in - how do I put this? I think the plot was really confusing.

CRUZ: Hear, hear.

(LAUGHTER)

MCBAIN: In ways that I think a casual viewer...

CRUZ: Yeah.

MCBAIN: ...Who is, like, just trying to engage with the movie might not enjoy. But I think that the plot is honestly secondary to the emotional undergirding of what the movie is trying to do and its purpose. So that's why I kind of forgive it for that. But I want to hear, Glen, what you thought.

HARRIS: Yes, Glen, please tell us.

WELDON: You know, for the past month or so, I've been on the show talking about something that the rest of the panel gets, and I don't. And I don't love that feeling. I'm certainly used to it, but I don't love that feeling. I like to love something and recommend it to people. And then this movie comes along, and it is such a balm to my soul. It gets me. I get it. I want to go door-to-door proselytizing, have you heard the good news...

CRUZ: Wow.

WELDON: ...About this movie? This movie - as y'all said, it's a vibe. It's atmospheric. But the atmosphere calls to me. There is an early shot of a suburban neighborhood at twilight with a glowing ice cream truck in the distance in the middle of a cul-de-sac. And, you know, it is horror. But as you guys say, it's a dark...

MCBAIN: Yes.

WELDON: ...Dream that I didn't want to wake up from. And, you know, just something as prosaic as, like, the first time we see Maddy, she's reading an episode guide. Now, for a big chunk of my early adulthood, episode guides were the only literary intake I had. Gather around Grand Pappy's knee while I tell you about the Borders and the Barnes and Noble TV section, the episode guide section that was my happy place. Now, this movie is not for everyone, and that's certainly fine because nothing worthwhile ever is. But it is, as y'all are saying, very deliberately paced. Now, that's done in service of this whole dream logic, dream vibe. But what it's giving you is this sense of being trapped and not allowing yourself to see that you are trapped. That is what this whole movie is doing.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: So there is, watching this movie, a definite sense of frustration. It's narrative frustration - right? - because why isn't this story moving forward? And it's emotional frustration. You know, why is this main character so passive? But that is there for a reason. It's meant to make us squirm in our seats. And yes, this movie is very imagistic. It's very intuitive, which is a nice grad school way of saying it puts the artsy in fartsy, as my...

HARRIS: Oh, yeah.

WELDON: ...Dad would say. But...

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Your mileage may vary. But it never felt self-indulgent to me because it never made me feel like I was intruding on some director's reality, like, their vision, and they don't care if I get it or not.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: This is, like, what if David Lynch cared, like, 30% more about story structure?

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Now, I have seen some reviews from critics I admire who do not get this film. They use words like excruciating and depressing. And that word depressing, man - like, I had the exact opposite reaction. I floated out of this theater on a cloud. But I'm really curious, Aisha, what your take on it was.

HARRIS: Well, Glen, I'm afraid we probably swapped places because this movie - I'm going to be the one kind of grouch here who...

WELDON: Cool.

HARRIS: ...It was one of those critics who just - it didn't vibe with me until the last, like, 20 minutes of this film. And then I was like, oh, OK. You said the sort of, like - the golden word in your description of this is really the reason why I could not get into this, which is Lynch, David Lynch. I'm sorry. I've tried. I've tried so hard to get into David Lynch. And this, to me, was opaque, for lack of a better word, in many ways that I didn't feel like the last 20 minutes necessarily, for me, earned. This is probably much more of a me problem than it is the director's problem. But I did kind of wonder - again, it makes me feel dumb (laughter), but I was so hung up on the fact that Ian Foreman, who plays a younger version of Owen, looks nothing like Justice Smith and also that...

WELDON: Sure.

HARRIS: ...Justice Smith, who is in his 20s now, is still playing a high schooler but not even just a high schooler. I think he's supposed to be, like, maybe in ninth or 10th grade when he first shows up on screen. This isn't, like, a play, where we're probably going to be more likely to let this go. Like, we have two very completely different characters and the time period of, like, jumping plus the fact that these characters don't look anything alike. One is dark-skinned. One is light-skinned. I was just very confused because Schoenbrun is trans, and they've talked in interviews about how this is a movie that is, in some ways, a reflection of transness. And we can dig into that a little bit later when we talk about the end of this film.

But I was wondering, are they also trying to comment in a way by casting an actor to play a ninth grader when he doesn't look anything - 'cause, like, when you think about the '90s and the fact that there are a lot of shows where teenagers are being played by grown adults - "90210" - maybe that's the theme. But I don't know. It just - it didn't wash over me in the same way that I wanted it to. I really wanted to like this movie, especially as a kid who loved "Are You Afraid Of The Dark?" and all the way that this references those things and also references how, when we grow up, our understanding of those shows that we loved changes and shifts. But I don't know, man. I found it hard (laughter).

WELDON: I reacted to the presence of Justice Smith in even a dumber way than you claim because I just - oh, it's Justice Smith. I like Justice Smith. I always am happy to see Justice Smith.

HARRIS: I am, too, but I don't know. It was jarring.

WELDON: Yeah, but I think he is - I think he's our modern-day Jimmy Stewart. He plays these kind of likeable but slightly incompetent, overmatched people who've got kind of feckless. They've got no discernible feck.

CRUZ: Wow.

HARRIS: Interesting.

CRUZ: I don't think I've ever heard anybody say that about Justice Smith before.

WELDON: Well, here's the thing. If you know his work, you know that his choices here are big and very risky. He is so soft here. His voice is so high, so strangled. He struggles to get out a sentence.

HARRIS: I wrote in my notes - sullen Muppet was what I was getting from him.

WELDON: OK.

HARRIS: He sounded...

WELDON: There you go.

HARRIS: ...Like a sullen Muppet.

MCBAIN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: And it's as if - I mean, literally, he's trying to get - go through life trying not to disturb a sleeping father. And speaking of fathers, Fred Durst plays his father. I think the guy's got maybe one line.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: But that one line is, isn't that a show for girls? And that whole movie depends on how squarely that line hits you in the chest, and it hit me squarely in the chest. And I was like, nope, this is the movie right here. This...

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Moment of just gasping in recognition is where it got me.

MCBAIN: Yeah, I would say, I mean, just like the way that he makes himself so small as to almost disappear. It's, like, recognizable. I have known that person, you know? So I just thought that performance was incredible, especially because I feel like I haven't really seen that for many of his former roles.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think we've probably tiptoed around this last third enough, and we can dig into spoilers. So let's move on to Owen's big revelation, which happens sort of towards the end of the film. And if you don't want to hear these spoilers, you've been warned. So Maddy disappears, and then the TV show "The Pink Opaque" is canceled, and Owen continues on with his life in quiet desperation.

But when Maddy re-enters Owen's life a few years later, she has an urgent message for him. She tells him that the world they live in is not real, and they are, in fact, the two main characters from "The Pink Opaque," Isabel and Tara. She urges him to reject his life and return with her to the world of the show. But Owen is caught between realities. He seems to understand that she's telling the truth but cannot bring himself to fully accept it. Reanna, what did you think about these revelations in the latter half of the film?

CRUZ: It's interesting - right? - because I did not see them as revelations. I from minute one of the movie knew this was a narrative about being trans, and I knew it was a narrative about gender identity and dysphoria and the trappings, I think, of the self that you find yourself in when you know something, but you won't admit it to yourself. I kind of had a sigh of relief because I was relieved that this is where the film was going to go. The narrative structure of the tension and relief throughout the course of this movie is, like we've mentioned, complicated. But - I don't know - I kind of like it that way. And I think for the film, it feels right, and it feels natural, and it feels just and revealing that Owen and Maddy are the characters from the show. Owen has seen himself as a woman. Like, all of these things - they just clicked.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MCBAIN: I totally agree. Like, I don't even think that was the big reveal. I think the big reveal was what happens after Owen rejects that chance to, like, become his true self. Like, the reveal is what happens when he doesn't come out.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MCBAIN: So, like, for context, Maddy talks to Owen about burying herself alive and digging herself out to become Tara. It doesn't make a ton of sense...

CRUZ: Right.

MCBAIN: ...As I talk about it now, but stick with me. Owen runs away from that offer. His life goes on. The years pass. And in the last portion of the film, he's, like, working at this, like, kids' arcade, and you see his lips are so dry - they're cracked.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MCBAIN: He's skeletal. He's wheezing for lack of air. The room freezes as he's screaming for help. And the big reveal, the revelation, is that he's been buried alive this entire time. In a life that, like, isn't truly his, he refused to save his own life by digging himself out or, in other words, by transitioning, and that was the reveal that really crushed me. Like, he'd been wheezing throughout the entire film, and you're kind of like, OK, like, it's explained away that he has asthma or whatever, but you realize that, like, he's just stuck in this life, and he didn't dig himself out. That felt like a really accurate description of what it's like to be trans but not transition. That reveal just cracked me open.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CRUZ: I mean, that's what I found so deeply terrifying and affecting. When I say I've thought about images from the last few minutes of this movie every single day, it's because they're so scary. It showed me...

MCBAIN: Yeah.

CRUZ: ...What my life would be in 20, 30 years had I not listened to my own intuition.

MCBAIN: Yeah.

CRUZ: The scene at the end where Owen is standing in front of the mirror, and he tears open his chest, and it's just TV...

HARRIS: Yeah.

CRUZ: ...Static. That is such an arresting image. Like, I feel my chest getting tight as I'm talking about it because it feels so real and so intrinsically what the experience of being trans is. You don't know what's inside of you, and you're scared, and you're terrified. It is scary and deeply terrifying. And I was deeply, deeply affected by specifically that revelation in the last few minutes of the film.

WELDON: And as I was watching this film, I mean, you could feel when the film was wrapping up, and I was just sitting there hoping it wasn't going to give me an ending that I thought would sell out all the sticky, complicated, layered stuff that had led up to it. I wasn't looking for Hollywood catharsis here. I was not looking for emotional uplift. I was looking to get an ending to Owen's story, not some kind of larger-than-life, you know, hero Owen but this Owen, this Owen that we got to know over the course of the film, who is not capable of doing what has to be done.

HARRIS: Right.

WELDON: So we get to the end. He's walking around that arcade. He is apologizing to people for coming to the realization that he has. He's apologizing to people. Imagine that. He's apologizing to have this moment of insight. He's apologizing for existing. And nobody around him cares.

MCBAIN: No one's listening.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: No one's listening. And he's making himself smaller and smaller, and he's the hero who refuses the call. He never crosses the threshold. He stays in his sad little village. And I was like, please, end here in this moment, this moment, when - as he's going around, at his lowest moment. Please, please, please don't offer me any kind of fake Hollywood - a hand reaches through the TV screen and pulls him in.

Now, why isn't that ending shattering? Why isn't it depressing to me? Because it does leave you with a note of hope. There's a chalk message outside - I think it's his house - that says something like, there is still time. It's not too late. We know he has everything he needs to make the choice he has to make, and maybe he will. He sees it in the mirror, as we all talked about, but they're not there yet (laughter).

HARRIS: Yes.

WELDON: I'll put it that way.

HARRIS: Yes.

WELDON: And maybe they will. And this is why I came out of this film feeling so strangely elated over a thing that I - to your point, Aisha, I will not recommend to everyone, but I know exactly who I'm going to recommend it to, and they will love it.

HARRIS: Well, that's the thing. Like, I was so locked in for the, like - once we got past the being buried part because I found that whole sequence very confusing, and I was - I didn't quite know what was going on. But once we got to however many years later, I think, 20 years later, I am working at this amusement center. My skin is splotchy. I look like death, basically. That, to me, was when I was fully locked in, and I felt as though this movie was doing so much heavy lifting at the end to sort of explain the rest of it. But I also think perhaps - and this is - these are my limitations.

But by the end of it, I was like, yes, this is definitely very obviously about trans identity, but I think part of why that end can also work is that it's just - can be seen more broadly as just anyone who decides to, you know, tamp down a part of themselves, whatever that may be, whether it's, you know, living in the suburbs when you don't want to or doing all the things that you're, quote-unquote "supposed to do." I don't want to obviously minimize how important this is as a movie about trans identity, but I also feel like it is kind of interesting, and I think it works in a way that, like, it doesn't just have to be about that. It can be about anyone who just tries to conform or just can't bring themselves to do what they feel like they should be doing.

CRUZ: I think that's fascinating because I've seen a lot of critics call this movie, I think, like, an ode or something of the sort about screen addiction and how, you know, you could be addicted to media. You could be addicted to screens in our time and era. The ending, there's a line where Justice Smith's character, Owen, is older and living in a house and comes out of the house and gets a big screen TV. And he goes, I have a family of my...

HARRIS: Yeah.

CRUZ: ...Own now and just takes the TV into the house, and we don't see the family, and we don't really know anything about anything other than his relationship to the TV. I think that's where the open-endedness of the ending, I think, matters because it reflects whatever you glean from the movie. Like, I know I watched it. I sobbed like a baby at the end because I was like, so true. Like, there is still time. Like, it deeply affected me. But I like that ambiguity. Liam, I'm curious to hear what you thought.

MCBAIN: I mean, I think it's important not to overlook that it is a trans story. Like, I saw an image of someone, like, controlling F on a review of it, and the word trans is not used even once (laughter) when that's what the story is about. So I think it's important to note that it is a trans story. But also, you know, I have a friend who's both trans and, like, a sober person who's in 12-step recovery. And they said it spoke more to that aspect of who they are, their identity about being a person who had to decide to dig themselves literally out of a grave, and to do that, they had to become a new person and live a new life completely.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MCBAIN: I do think that the whole movie exists to serve the ending, and I don't think that that's a bad thing. The first section - it's really about, like, how other people tell Owen he should see his reality. Like, you're a boy. "The Pink Opaque" is a TV show. The second section is about, like, you know, confusing that. Like, is it just a TV show? Is Owen really Isabel? And then, the third section is - gets you right into the emotional reality.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MCBAIN: Like, what it actually feels like to be trans and not transition into, like, the survival instinct that's just telling him, you're dying, you're dying, you're dying. So...

HARRIS: Yeah.

MCBAIN: ...I totally agree that, like, the rest of the movie is kind of just to serve you up and prime you for that ending.

HARRIS: Yeah. So while I didn't quite love this movie, I will say that the soundtrack is pretty killer. You've got Phoebe Bridgers with the band Sloppy Jane and a lot more indie and queer artists on the soundtrack, as well. So I do think it's really, really cool the way the movie uses that music.

CRUZ: Yeah, I mean, there's a couple things that I find really fascinating about this movie's integration of music. One, Jane, the director - their favorite show is "Buffy," and they've talked in several interviews about how this movie is a love letter to "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," among many things. And there's a distinct, I think, connection in the middle of the movie, where this "revelation," quote-unquote, happens, where Maddy shows up back in Owen's life. They go to a bar, and there's music playing in a bar. And there's live performances that soundtrack Maddy and Owen's conversation.

That's, I think, a direct reference to the bar in "Buffy." I don't know. I find it interesting how well the movie integrates this distinctly nostalgic but also discordant soundtrack. The Yeule cover of Broken Social Scene's "Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl" really sums up what this soundtrack does. It takes things that are familiar - familiar sounds, familiar touchstones, '90s rock - things of that nature and turns them into something kind of digital, kind of weird, nostalgic in the sense that we feel like we've heard it before, but it's totally new. And I think that speaks to the larger themes of the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTHEMS FOR A SEVENTEEN YEAR-OLD GIRL")

YEULE: (Singing) Bleaching your teeth, smiling flash, talking trash under your breath. Bleaching your teeth, smiling flash, talking trash under your breath. Bleaching your teeth, smiling flash...

CRUZ: And in conversation with Jane, Jane was like, I just wanted to make a banging mix tape. Like, they reverse-engineered a movie to make a really cool soundtrack. So yeah, I think that's something to really, really know. Even if you don't watch the movie, the soundtrack has, like, Bartees Strange and Caroline Polachek and Yeule and Sloppy Jane and all of these really great indie artists on it that wholly get the movie.

HARRIS: Glen, do you have any last thoughts?

WELDON: No, I'm just thinking about that coffee mug. You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps. You don't have to be trans to love this film, but it helps.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Well, we want to know what you think about "I Saw The TV Glow." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Glen Weldon, Liam McBain and Reanna Cruz, thanks so much for being here and for bearing with me as I process this movie (laughter).

CRUZ: Happy to talk about it.

WELDON: We're all processing it together.

MCBAIN: Yes.

CRUZ: Exactly (laughter).

HARRIS: It was a pleasure. This episode was produced by Liz Metzger and edited by Mike Katzif, with audio engineering assistance from Cena Loffredo. Our supervising producer is Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks so much for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris. We'll see you all tomorrow.

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