TV & Movies

I Saw The TV Glow Is Jane Schoenbrun’s ’90s Nightmare

The director’s sophomore feature deals with identity, suburban rot, and the pitfalls of nostalgia.

Person with curly hair wearing glasses and a bow tie smiles against a pink and purple gradient backg...

These days, the nostalgia machine is turned to overdrive: Every other day, another reboot or spinoff is announced (just today, a Legally Blonde prequel and a Tomb Raider series made headlines). But none of Hollywood’s efforts have as come close to capturing the feeling of childhood in the ’90s as director Jane Schoenbrun’s new psychological horror film, I Saw the TV Glow.

The buzzy A24 movie follows Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a pair of high school outcasts who bond over their love of a supernatural, lore-filled TV show. Suffocated by suburban social norms, they begin to feel the show is more real than reality.

I Saw the TV Glow is full of surreal, stylish images — phantasmagoric, even. But the movie’s magic is its refusal to feel magical. All the enchantment is extracted. A fog of ennui expands to fill the vacuum.

It’s a personal story for the director, who grew up in the ’90s New York’s suburbs and always sensed something was a bit off with their surroundings. “You can’t talk about the suburbs without talking about white supremacy and white flight,” Schoenbrun, 37, tell Bustle. “That idea of safety and stability only exists in what it excludes.” Add a dollop of ’90s “end of history” delusion, and the world only gets hazier.

Shoenbrun on set.Courtesy of A24

Smith’s character, Owen, is also wrestling with the disorientation of gender dysphoria. His homophobic father — played with a menacing edge by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst — instills “a mostly ambient shame that keeps Owen from exploring and finding himself,” Schoenbrun says. “In many ways, [that shame is] the force that stole decades from my life in a very subtle and ambient way.” For a time, fandom provided an escape, but it was a poor substitute for the one they needed.

Only after fully extricating themselves from the shame could Schoenbrun make I Saw the TV Glow and warn others: Don’t get lost in the fog.

Below, Schoenbrun discusses the realities of making a studio film, its ending, and how they really feel about fandom these days.

“It was both insane and mischievous and felt like a heist, but [it] was something I could be proud of and something that was totally exhausting and psychotic.”

Your last film, the independent, micro-budget We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, had a very different release than this one. What’s it like going on this whirlwind press tour with A24?

I did do my fair share of press last time, not like this, but I learned that for my own sanity, I’m not here to regurgitate six talking points. I’m here to unpack what I can about the film, the process, and who I am. I try to think of it as I’m rambling my verbal memoirs to anyone who’s willing to listen. So that’s been fun.

Have your rambling conversations taken you anywhere you didn’t expect to go?

Yeah, I’m emotionally committed in a way that [PR professionals] wouldn’t recommend when giving advice about how to do a press tour.

I really do care and believe in the role of the artist in society. We live in a very weird and bad society. Hopefully that’s expressed in the work, but I also try to not toe a company line toward the maximum good vibes. I’m just trying to be honest about who I am and what I do, and all the ways that’s weird and hard and strange — being trans and making movies within a corporate structure, and trying really hard to make them honest and subversive to the degree that they can be. I’m proud of it. And also I’m excited, I think, to say how weird it is in public.

What in particular has been weird?

After I made my first film and it did well — and I made it on my own terms, with a lot of creative freedom — I knew that I had been given this cool opportunity. I had the political power to be like “Hey, here’s the big version of what I can do.”

Doing that in a way I could be proud of — as a trans person who comes from a very specific gaze on the world, and my version of transness — is inherently political. [It’s] apparently oppositional to the binaries that structure our country. I don’t want to be reinforcing those structures. I knew I had this opportunity to do something radical and essentially spend other people’s money on [it].

I was also super conscious that to do that, I needed to enter that commercial space and participate in my own commodification. It was such a weird tightrope and dance. It was both insane and mischievous and felt like a heist, but [it] was something I could be proud of and something that was totally exhausting and psychotic.

Courtesy of A24

The movie doesn’t exactly end with a happily ever after. Why didn’t you want to tie up the ends neatly like that?

Like what?

You know, if he’d realized he was experiencing dysphoria, goes all in, builds a new life, et cetera.

That would’ve taken a lot longer to do in a way that felt true to my experience as a trans person, [longer] than I had in the runtime of the movie.

When I finally saw myself in the way Owen finally sees himself at the end — in a way where I could no longer hide, and at which point I was ready to be like “OK, maybe I have to start my life” — that was after decades of repression, damage, and trauma. When I first started my physical transition, I remember just being overwhelmed. And I think that’s plenty for one movie, and that’s plenty for a character arc that is true to the trans experience.

What do you hope viewers take away from the ending?

I don’t think it’s a cautionary tale. I don’t think it’s a sad ending. And I think when trans people watch the film, generally speaking, they understand this. I think they’re moved to see something that doesn’t feel like it’s placating to cis audiences [by] painting a simplified narrative of self-recognition.

My deepest goal with this film was to be emotionally honest, so that other people who’ve been through the experiences that I’ve been through could feel a little less alone. I think it’s actually more of an optimistic way to make a movie, to say “I’m not going to sugarcoat this so we can feel good about ourselves unless we’re trans.”

At one point, I understand you wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files fan fiction, and I’m dying to know what your fan fic was about.

Well, actually, I totally know what my Buffy reboot would be.

Oh, yeah?

I would love to reboot Buffy. I’ve got a whole pitch. If anyone wants to give me a call... I don’t know that I would actually want to do it, because the idea of rebooting a thing that you love so deeply feels treacherous. Can you ever really reclaim the magic of childhood? I feel like I made a film about how precarious that notion is.

And my X-Files fan fiction was a mess. I was like 10 years old, and I don’t quite remember what I was writing. I definitely made up some fake Buffy spoilers at one point. I loved spoilers as a kid. I wanted to be in the writer’s room even when I was 10.

Do you read fan fiction today?

I spend less time in the corners of the Internet that I once clung to, and I think that’s a healthy evolution. I feel more able to exist in the fullness of my own real life, [instead of] the need to cling obsessively to fiction.

I spent so many years studying before I was ready to make my own art. Studying, getting under the hood of television, or just obsessively sifting through the film canon, trying to learn what moved me. At this point in my life, it’s almost like my life has become my muse. Or that I am living and trying to reflect that experience into the work as I make it.

When did you know you were ready to start making your own work?

When I figured out I was trans. Literally, I did mushrooms, and I was trying to figure out why I felt such anxiety and shame and embarrassment about making my first film. I was still writing World’s Fair at that point.

That all essentially led me in a pretty straight line to realizing that [in order] to make art that felt truthful to who I was meant admitting who I was and starting that long, slow process of learning to love the parts of myself that I’d been told were ugly and shameful and needed to be hid away.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.