Out of the Celluloid Closet

I Saw The TV Glow‘s Brigette Lundy-Paine And Jane Schoenbrun say we’re all Owen and Maddy

via A24

The bonds between the questioning kids and the misfits are lifelines for young LGBTQ+ people. In the ‘90s and early aughts, many of us found solace in the company of others who didn’t quite fit in, through the love of our favorite art mediums. In A24’s I Saw The TV Glow, Owen (Justice Smith) forms a friendship with Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) as they bond over the love of their favorite show, The Pink Opaque

Through The Pink Opaque, Owen and Maddy escape reality, and through this hour of television end up inviting each other into their respective vulnerabilities as they form parallel relationships with their on-screen counterparts, Isabel and Tara (Helena Howard and Lindsey “Snail Mail” Jordan). We see Owen and Maddy explore their gender identities and expression as they emulate The Pink Opaque’s characters.

Lundy-Paine first read the script for I Saw The TV Glow after watching director Jane Schoenbrun’s 2021 psychological thriller film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. They remember immediately becoming obsessed with the I Saw The TV Glow script, and looking forward to bringing that classic ‘90s grunge quality to the screen.

“A lot of the dialogue feels like classic teen high school angst,” says Lundy-Paine. “But having seen Jane’s first movie, I knew that there would be something really strange and unsettling about the way that we approached these scenes. I felt personally like I’d done them before –  like, some of the lines in the movie, I said in other shows super earnestly. And this project, I knew, would be like stripping away everything that I had reinforced in my performances as an American teenager. And this was a deeper reality that was very personal to me.”

Lundy-Paine, a nonbinary actor, has played a few teenage girls, most notably Casey Gardner on Netflix’s Atypical. So channeling the angst-ridden Maddy was equally familiar to them, as much as it was a novelty. But for Schoenbrun, the research process for the film began much earlier on.

Director Jane Schoenbrun on set, via A24.

As a child, Schoenbrun found comfort in shows like Ren And Stimpy, The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer – and viewers will immediately catch nods to those shows as they watch I Saw The TV Glow.

But teenage Schoebrun wouldn’t dare express their fandom for these shows as a teenager. Revisiting these programs as an adult proved to be a therapeutic step in I Saw The TV Glow’s creative process.

“I kept [these shows] pretty much separate from my real world,” says Schoenbrun, “because I knew if I like showed up to high school in a Buffy t-shirt, l would have been made fun of. But I loved that show so deeply…And so, it was quite effortless making this movie and returning to those obsessions.”

Throughout the movie, we see Maddy and Owen at various stages of their lives. Though much of the core parts of their characters remain the same, we see Maddy become more confident as she reunites with Owen in adulthood. Owen watches The Pink Opaque as an adult, and realizes the show isn’t as entertaining or mind-blowing as they once remembered it.

But each encounter between Owen and Maddy proves to be vital to the formation of their actualized selves as the years go by.

Many queer viewers will recognize the archetypal dynamic between Owen and Maddy and how it parallels the experience of growing up queer and trans– the friendship between the gender-questioning egg and the angsty girl; the girls, gays, and theys who bonded together to rebel against gym class by sitting in the bleachers; the shy closeted kid and the outspoken queer kid. They’re the community outcasts who don’t and can’t fit in, but can at least find the people around them who can match their weird.

“There was actually this youth group in my county where I grew up that became this meeting ground for all the punk and goth kids,” says Schoenbrun. “Like, all of the kids who listened to Bright Eyes and wanted to go to hardcore basement shows and chain-smoke cigarettes and talk about their feelings would literally go to this Episcopalian Church every Sunday night. They would give us a topic every week, and it would be like, drugs or sex. And we would just get into these small groups and like talk about our feelings. And then we would go to the diner, drink coffee, and chain-smoke cigarettes. It was so queer-coded…And I became so emotionally invested in that space in that community.”

[Owen and Maddy] are the community outcasts who don’t and can’t fit in, but can at least find the people around them who can match their weird.

Both Lundy-Paine and Schoenbrun say that being both the Owen and the Maddy in these dynamics are queer rites of passage, even when one isn’t sure what it all means. And that the process in which one becomes the other isn’t always linear.

“I find a lot of relationships mirror Owen and Maddy’s on both sides of it,” says Lundy-Paine. “Being the Owen and the Maddy, I feel, is something that you kind of pass on in queer lineage. You are Owen until the point where you can be Maddy, and then you’re Maddy, and then sometimes you have to be Owen again. It’s like an in-and-out flux.”

I Saw The TV Glow is now playing in theaters.♦

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