A 'Buffy' obsession became an opening door. Now Jane Schoenbrun returns the favor

Penélope Cruz stares me down while I interview visionary filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun.

The Spanish actress isn’t actually in the room with us, but on the DVD cover of her 2015 film “Ma Ma,” sitting on a shelf at Vidiots, the legendary Los Angeles video store that was resurrected last year in Eagle Rock. Schoenbrun and I have burrowed down one of its movie-laden aisles to talk about the power of browsing, maybe to lock eyes with Cruz or to be beckoned by some other new obsession.

“I was a full-on video store kid,” says Schoenbrun, 37. “There’s a church feeling about being surrounded by these holy objects that’s very childlike for me.”

Schoenbrun’s alluring trans-themed work “I Saw the TV Glow” had its Los Angeles premiere at this physical media shrine last month as part of the first edition of the Los Angeles Festival of Movies. The filmmaker marvels at the rows of discs, thousands of them. “Hidden within here is something that could transport me somewhere new or change my life,” Schoenbrun says.

Immersed in fiction is where the teenage protagonists of “I Saw the TV Glow” feel most at home. It’s the 1990s and Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddie (Brigette Lundy-Paine), two quiet high-school students, bond over a fantastical show, “The Pink Opaque.”

Each episode follows a pair of adolescent girls with superpowers fighting monsters unleashed by the villainous Mr. Melancholy. Though physically separated, the heroes of the show share a telepathic connection. Digital noise and dorky effects convincingly evoke the period, Schoenbrun lifting each segment seemingly by way of a time machine. It captures teen angst perfectly: a bit cheesy and self-serious but sincere.

“The Pink Opaque” airs on Saturday nights past Owen’s bedtime, but for the next few years, Maddie records it on VHS tapes for him. It becomes a shared language between these two soft-spoken outcasts, one that only they can hear. It both frees them from their reality and haunts them. Maybe they’re living in the wrong bodies, in the wrong town, with time slipping away.

“The movie is interested in the sadness, loneliness or perhaps even sinister nature of emotionally investing so deeply in fandom,” Schoenbrun says, likening it to a two-way mirror. Hypnotic and scored by folktronica artist Alex G with an appearance by musician Phoebe Bridgers, “I Saw the TV Glow” has a transporting lull of its own. But while thoughtfully stylized, Schoenbrun’s film still comes across as a story “created from the rib cage,” as star Lundy-Paine describes it.

“When I think back on reading the screenplay for the first time, it felt like a wave of electric blue and pink and a sense of urgency came over me,” says Lundy-Paine during a video call.

As a 10-year-old, Schoenbrun stumbled upon the supernatural series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on an old TV set in their parents’ bedroom. The show became the foundational reference for “The Pink Opaque” — and, for a young fan, a place of belonging. At one point, Schoenbrun was able to name every episode, by title and in chronological order, to help them fall asleep.

“It was a show about a girl who wasn’t like other girls and who had a destiny that she didn’t want to have because she wanted to feel normal,” Schoenbrun says. “It was about found family and about people changing. I found the way the characters were formed was very comforting.”

In hindsight, the director now understands why an episode in which Buffy comes out to her mother as a vampire slayer moved them to tears.

“It resonated because I was hungry, just like the characters in my film, for something fictional that felt true to life,” Schoenbrun says, “as if it was telling me a secret thing.” That secret thing, they would realize some years later, was an identity as a trans person.

“Now I exist in spaces filled with people I love, but when I was a kid, 100% of that love went right to ‘Buffy’ — I cared so much for those characters,” Schoenbrun says. (Which episode have they seen the most times? “Once More, With Feeling” a.k.a. the “Buffy” musical.)

Schoenbrun’s devotion to “Buffy” extended to online forums where others shared feelings of being under its spell. It inspired Schoenbrun’s 2021 feature debut, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” about an isolated teenager, Casey (Anna Cobb), whose sole outlet for self-discovery is creepypastas, the ever-evolving horror fictions endemic to the internet, and the community around them.

“Casey feels dissociated from everyone,” Cobb tells me on Zoom, calling her character a “rejectable reject,” someone who sinks into a digital abyss. “She couldn’t even find a group of weird kids that she felt cool with. That’s why the internet was kind of a safe harbor for her, even though it was also damaging for her.”

Like Owen and Maddie, Casey sees the computer monitor’s glow, yearning to find answers in an alternative reality.

“I didn’t know I was trans when I started working on that film,” Schoenbrun says. “I really was like Casey searching for something and thinking, ‘What is this feeling?’ And returning to this space of ‘Why was I so drawn to these online spaces where I was able to experiment with myself in a way that was detached from physical form and identity?’”

“TV Glow,” on the other hand, was written in the immediate aftermath of Schoenbrun’s coming to terms with their gender dysphoria. For the filmmaker, it’s an acknowledgment of the innumerable invisible signals that arrived before being fully understood.

“It’s very rare in this world when there actually is an answer or a cure to a problem that you’ve always assumed was just the human condition,” Schoenbrun says. “Not that transition solves all of life’s existential woes, but it certainly solved some of them for me.”

Lundy-Paine, who also identifies as nonbinary, sees “I Saw the TV Glow” as a record of the “pain and devastation” that a trans person undergoes while coming to an awareness of “the prison that’s been built around you, and knowing the enormity of the work that it will take to free yourself from this prison.”

“Trans girls are at risk,” Schoenbrun says. “We come to a post-transition life being like, ‘I’ve got to make up for a lot of lost time.’”

Schoenbrun knows that part of that alienation came from growing up in the suburbs of Westchester County, New York, “perfectly manicured” spaces of homogeneity. One scene late in “TV Glow,” which was shot in New Jersey, sees Owen working at an arcade, the Fun Center, surrounded by smiling faces. Though perceived as a place of harmless enjoyment, for Owen it’s yet another cage suffocating him.

“The suburbs are a very strange place moonlighting as normal,” Schoenbrun says. “When you’re a kid born there and told that this is normal and safe, but then maybe you are not so normative and don’t fit so cleanly into it, it’s just this very uncanny experience.”

There was, however, Captain Video, a video store crucial to Schoenbrun’s formative years as a cinephile, where they discovered titles such as “Donnie Darko” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Those indies from the early aughts felt transgressive.

Hailed as an instant cult film since its Sundance premiere, “TV Glow” has already resonated with viewers, perhaps even in the same way Schoenbrun did with “Buffy.” Online forums and fan fiction about Owen and Maddie, if not already happening on social media, are imminent, as will be discussion of Schoenbrun’s ending, which is impossible to spoil even as it strikes notes of hope and dread both.

“That’s maybe me exploring my relationship with myself and not wanting to play into the very Hollywood, Western-narrative idea of resolution or catharsis that allows an experience or a book to be closed,” Schoenbrun says. “Because to me, transition is lifelong. And in fact, I don’t know that I like the word transition. I like the word healing.”

As we step out of our Vidiots hideaway, Schoenbrun realizes — with a brand of muted excitement that I’m coming to see as uniquely theirs — that we were sitting by sections dedicated to queer pioneer Gregg Araki and genre-defying French auteur Olivier Assayas. One day, not long from now, Schoenbrun will have a space on Vidiots’ racks, loaded with titles standing at the ready to change someone’s life, or at least make them feel less alone.

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