Drew Burnett Gregory is back at Sundance, reporting daily with queer movie reviews from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Follow along for her coverage of the best in LGBTQ+ cinema and beyond.
When I interviewed Jane Schoenbrun about their debut We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, they mentioned their next film was written during the early months of physical transition and would be “about the egg crack.” That film is I Saw the TV Glow and it’s a mix of styles, ideas, and emotions fitting for that chaotic moment in a trans person’s life.
I Saw the TV Glow is about Owen (Justice Smith) who we fall through time alongside from 7th grade (played then by Ian Foreman) until somewhere well into his adulthood. He’s a quiet kid who loves his mom and fears his dad. He doesn’t share the interests of his peers — except 9th grader Maddie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) who loves a fantasy show called The Pink Opaque that Owen isn’t allowed to watch because it airs after his bedtime. Oh and because his dad says it’s a show for girls.
The Pink Opaque is an obvious stand-in for Buffy and Schoenbrun has a lot of fun recreating that era of teen fantasy show. Maddie educates Owen on “monsters of the week” and “big bads” and then begins slipping him VHS tapes so he can actually watch the episodes.
I Saw the TV Glow does for television and cool older girls (who might not be girls) what We’re All Going to the World’s Fair did for the internet and inappropriate adult men. The bond that forms between Owen and Maddie is deeply recognizable both in how tightly they connect and in the gaps they cannot fill.
By remaining truthful to the quiet awkwardness of many closeted trans girls, Schoenbrun has given themself a challenging task. Owen is fearful and self-conscious in ways that are pointedly alienating. After delivering the best line of the film, Justice Smith lets out his only laugh and one of his few smiles and it feels like a relief. That relief is quickly snatched away.
Because Owen — and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Maddie — are so internal, the film is at its best in its moments of quiet. The film’s masterful visuals, haunting sound design, poetic score, and cinematic flourishes combine to create moments that are transcendent. Schoenbrun confirms themself here as a singularly talented filmmaker unafraid to take risks — stylistically and emotionally.
But, from the beginning, the lines between Owen’s life and the world of The Pink Opaque are blurred. Schoenbrun allows characters to mimic the sort of overwrought dialogue and monologues found in Buffy and other teen shows. It’s fascinating to see this style used to represent trans teenagehood instead of Buffy’s cis girlhood, but it’s a choice I found myself admiring more than connecting with. Teenagers and newly out trans people both believe they’re discovering new ways of thinking and feeling that other people have been thinking and feeling for centuries. I experienced this myself and there’s a poignant nostalgia to seeing that represented on-screen — there’s also occasionally a distance.
Schoenbrun is currently working on an adaption of Imogen Binnie’s Nevada and it’s a fitting union of artist and material. Despite all the Buffy references, it’s that book that feels most closely tied to this film. Reading Nevada years into my transition — and after reading several books from trans authors inspired by Nevada — I felt grateful for its existence while experiencing a similar distance from the moment of transness it portrayed.
During that same interview, Schoenbrun told me they started working on We’re All Going to the World’s Fair before knowing they were trans, and they felt obligated to honor that uncertainty in the film itself. They’ve made a similar choice here — even though they were further into their transition during production and post-production, they honored the emotions of those early moments this film was written. There’s something quite vulnerable and quite rare about an artist trusting the person they were in the past. It’s easy for us — especially as trans people — to be so eager for the future that we ignore even the present. I love that Schoenbrun has resisted that temptation.
I Saw the TV Glow is about the art that shapes us, even if someday we grow beyond it. The film warns against looking at this art with dismissal or disdain. To do so is to look at our past selves with these same negative emotions. To do so is to deny our full personhood. To do so is to deny the tools we need to move confidently into the future.
I came to Buffy even later than I came to Nevada. But as a teenager, there was other art — good and bad — that shaped the woman I am today. And, next to me, also experiencing that art, was someone I thought was a girl — another queer human — who shaped me even more.
The two of us often sat side-by-side, staring at a screen, dreaming of the people we might someday become.
I Saw the TV Glow will be released by A24 later this year.