Is your nostalgia a crutch? Or a doorway to liberation? That’s the question asked by filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun’s new movie I Saw the TV Glow.

In the film, Owen (played at different ages by Ian Foreman and Justice Smith), has to choose to live his life truthfully, or to live in the past via a young adult TV show called The Pink Opaque. It’s a choice everyone has to make, because from politics to pop culture, nostalgia is the language of American life — for better or worse. 

Schoenbrun, who is gender non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, says fandom was a coping mechanism for a confusing adolescence in which they felt left out of many teenage rituals around dances, dating, and social life in general. 

Like many other millennial teens, Schoenbrun took solace in the TV of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, from Nickelodeon’s Saturday night SNICK programming to the X-Files on Sundays to Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Tuesdays.

“When I was 16 and lonely, I didn’t understand myself. I was listening to sad music and watching TV shows that filled some kind of void,” Schoenbrun says. “They offered me something like The Pink Opaque offers Owen in the film. It isn’t going to save your life, but it can provide shelter or a hug or warmth when you need it.”

Owen is just trying to make it through life in the suburbs when his classmate Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) introduces him to the spooky late-night atmospherics of The Pink Opaque. It quickly becomes more than television to the lonely teenager. 

Night after night, Owen finds himself through the series, but struggles to actualize his deepest desires. 

Schoenbrun no longer has that level of fandom, but doesn’t judge their younger self: “I’m still a Mulder kid,” they laugh, as they hold up a Fox Mulder doll from The X-Files, the show about conspiracy hunting FBI agents: “I’m a believer.” 

But what if Shoenbrun hadn’t moved on? I Saw the TV Glow examines the idea of clinging to childhood loves to avoid growing into the person you’re meant to be. It uses fandom as a metaphor for an unexamined life.

Schoenbrun says their own transition was the moment they passed from “being in the audience of my life to being on stage.” 

“It slowly changed my relationship to everything in my life,” they explain. “Fandom was such a huge part of it, and still is, but transitioning let me reacquaint myself with the things that I love from a different angle.”

Jane Schoenbrun From the World’s Fair to I Saw the TV Glow

The trailer for I Saw the TV Glow, directed by Jane Schoenbrun.

Schoenbrun produced feature-length fiction films, documentaries, and short films before breaking through with the 2021 success of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. It debuted at the first all-virtual Sundance in 2021, at the height of the pandemic. It was a fitting introduction, as the movie is about living in a virtual world, and finding dark comforts online. 

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair drew the attention of A24, which is releasing I Saw the TV Glow — a glow-up in every sense. The movie is painted with dappled, pink neons, fuzzy ‘90s television aesthetics, and scuzzy creatures worthy of Are You Afraid of the Dark? There are scenes when the characters directly address the camera, which was inspired by The Adventures of Pete & Pete on Nickelodeon. 

Also Read: Jane Schoenbrun on the Line Between Art and Commerce

“I do think there was something about that early Nickelodeon, post-Ren & Stimpy moment where the intentionality of children’s television seemed to be… I would go as far as to say queer, but if not queer, built around an ethos of subversive counter-cultural perversity,” Schoenbrun says. “I guess the internet became that for a lot of kids after the early ‘90s.”

With I Saw the TV Glow, Schoenbrun also works with a larger cast, including Danielle Deadwyler and Limp Bizkit singer Fred Durst. Indie musician Alex G, who wrote an original soundtrack for We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, returns to Schoenbrun’s world with a score for I Saw the V Glow

Schoenbrun says they’re a formalist, “but once you’ve built those structures for yourself, you almost have to attack the part of yourself that’s a formalist and you need to be finding raw nerves to tap into.”

TV Shows as Friends

I Saw the TV Glow, directed by Jane Schoenbrun. A24

Schoenbrun relates to Owen having better relationships with a TV show than with real people. They have a distinct memory of going to a homecoming dance in high school and watching their peers flirt and have their first kisses — while feeling completely alienated from the experience. 

After the dance, they read online that Joss Whedon’s Firefly was canceled, and felt something like heartbreak.

“I was putting the human experience into the safety of fandom, which is a one-sided relationship,” Schoenbrun says. “It was safer to express love and desire and passion in fandom compared to where the normative people around me placed theirs.”

Schoenbrun doesn’t want their films to be an escape from reality, but rather an invitation to engage with it. 

“By making this movie, I too am participating in this weird exchange that’s incredibly intimate,” they say. ”I put a lot of real feelings and myself into this movie in hopes that it would connect with other people.”

Schoenbrun says both We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and I Saw the TV Glow are ultimately about what it means to be a person.

“I think if your sensitivities and upbringing were like mine, then my movies will be more natural to you,” they say. “But hopefully, even if you’re coming from a very different context or even if you’re cisgender and have been a healthy, normal, productive member of society your whole life, there’s still something to learn about the human experience from the film.”

I Saw the TV Glow is now playing in New York City and Los Angeles and opens nationwide on May 17, from A24.

Editor’s Note: Corrects main image.