Justice Smith Talks ‘I Saw The TV Glow’ And The Disposability And Comfort Of Art

What if a distraction starts to become a destination? What is real and unreal? Is our destiny to be who we are or someone else? Someone more? I Saw The TV Glow, a new A24-produced suburban horror film (with an outstanding soundtrack) from writer/director Jane Schoenbrun explores those questions, teenage loneliness, the draw of screens, and the unifying power of art and thrill of finding someone to share it with.

The film, which is now in limited theaters now before going wide on May 17, is also a deeply personal story from an openly trans filmmaker who tapped into a very specific time in their life to to tell this story, with Schoenbrun telling Deadline that they wrote the film early on in their transition.

“The beginning of transition, I think for a lot of trans folks, is a really bewildering time where everything you’ve come to accept as reality is sort of being thrown into flux, and it’s both this incredibly beautiful and courageous leap of faith, and at times can feel completely uncharted, like you have no roadmap for what your life is and where you’re going.”

As one of the stars of the film, Justice Smith plays Owen, a teenager in the ‘90s who finds comfort in a monster-of-the-week style supernatural TV show (ala Buffy) called The Pink Opaque. Owen shares that interest with a friend in Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine), but when she disappears, questions surface about whether the world of the show is actually real. To say much more would spoil a film that our Josh Kurp called, “one of the most original, thought provoking, and The Adventures of Pete & Pete-referencing films you’ll see all year” (the ’90s reverence is far beyond surface here). I will say, however, that the film does span a large swath of Owen’s life and it does focus on the choices we make and the question of whether it’s worse to give in to our imagination or give up on it.

Below, we spoke with Smith in a loose interview that we both agreed felt more like a vibe-y conversation about philosophy than a typical junket chat. ‘90s nostalgia is touched upon as is SpongeBob, but also the nature of making art in an age of disposability and the value of finding things to geek out over at a time when everything is chaos.

It feels like it’s the ’90s moment, where people are very reflective of it, very nostalgic for it. So what does that mean for you as someone who was experiencing it at the tail end?

Yeah, I remember there was this big wave of kids my age being like, “I’m a ’90s kid.” I’m like, we were five in the year 2000.

That’s how I feel about the ’80s, I remember parts, but it’s not really the same experience (as living through all of it).

I will say, the first five years of the aughts had so much bleedover from the ’90s that it wasn’t fully immersive ’90s like culture, but it was the transition period, which I think is why people my age identify with it so much. Or maybe it’s just that the ’90s has a cool factor. When I think of the ’80s, I don’t think cool. I think loud. I think expressive. The ’70s, I think of chill. I think of groovy, I think of weed. But the ’90s, I feel like it’s like the aesthetic was admirable. ’90s fashion is coming back. I mean, I’m wearing a COOGI sweater right now. ’90s fashion has a grip on us right now, and ’90s movies were incredible. ’90s hip-hop was the best era of hip-hop. So I think the ’90s just did a lot of things right.

It also feels like the last era that you can get your hands around. Things were a little bit more, not in control, but it was before the explosion of content, before the internet really took full bloom and we kind of had an expanded view of the universe. Maybe there’s a kind of nostalgia for that, when things were simpler, like we all have with childhood.

Yeah, I think that’s definitely it. Yeah. The internet has made these decades less defined. Everything is more gradual and less succinct, and I think there are pros and cons, obviously to having access to so much information all the time. But I think one of the cons is that culture is almost shifting too quickly. Every week there’s something trending, and it’s hard to define a period of 10 years with a certain aesthetic. Although the year 2000 to 2010 has a specific aesthetic, and the 2010s, I watch a lot of influencers who reflect on what the 2010s actually felt like and looked like. I never defined it for myself, but it was really specific. I mean, a lot of that culture was online culture. It was like when the internet was defining itself as a culture, you know what I mean?

Yeah, because it feels so co-opted now, the space is so polluted now by every corporation having its own personality and everything like that.

Yeah, capitalism is crazy right now. Everything is kind of bleak and recycled.

Obviously, you don’t have the experience of what it was like to drop a movie in 1995, but knowing how things work, and knowing how quickly culture moves now, to your point, is there a longing for something that you’ve never known? Do these things feel disposable to you in a way that feels unfair? I know, like me personally, when I do an interview, 15, 20 years ago, if I did an interview with you, it would be in a magazine, and it would be on a stand for a month, and people would read it for a while. And now it’s on a website, and then there’s another post, and another post, and another post on Twitter, and it’s gone.

Yeah. People click on it and then they forget about it.

Yeah, and to be honest, it bothers me. But that’s an interview. When you’re putting months and months of time into a movie that’s going to go up, and in a week there’ll be another movie, and another movie. Does that disposability of culture bother you?

Yeah, it was a hard thing to adjust to. I really thought in my young 20s, I still believed this idea that if you work hard, you reap the benefits, and that’s just not really true. It’s like, we live in a day and age where it’s like you work hard, you finish something, and then it’s onto the next thing. It’s not about finished product. It’s about resume. It’s about how many products are on the shelf. It’s about quantity, more than it is quality. And again, it’s the internet. There’s so much fucking content.

It’s just an engine that constantly needs to be fueled.

Yeah. Everything can’t really have a spotlight, because if everything has a spotlight, then nothing does.

It’s an engine that needs to constantly be fueled but sometimes you wonder if it’s a hunger that exists in the market, or is it just a hunger that exists in the C-suite.

Yeah, I think it’s in the C-suite. No, I think it’s a hunger of the C-suite. I think it’s driven by money, as is everything. And I think that it’s also that our attention spans have been shortened and shortened gradually over time with social media, and I think that ultimately makes the market hungry for more and more content. So I think it’s all feeding each other. They’re all cogs in this larger machine.

With this and the focus that this character has on the importance of this show to him, I am curious about whether you had a show that you really attached to when you were younger, and also curious if you feel in general that maybe we’re sometimes too hard on ourselves for the shows that we loved when we were younger?

I liked a lot of darker fare, like Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark, and Don’t Look Under the Bed. And even lighter, darker fare like Grim Adventures Of Billy And Mandy, or Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s like children’s goth, children’s horror – I was always drawn to that kind of stuff. At the same time, I had this unhealthy obsession with SpongeBob Squarepants, where my whole room was decorated with SpongeBob paraphernalia. And I mean now you’re seeing so many millennials reflect on how SpongeBob is the basis of their humor.

It really defined humor for a generation. And I mean, it still holds up. I watch those fucking first three seasons, the ones I grew up with, to this day from time to time, and I’m like, this shit is still funny to me. And that’s not always the case when you watch your old childhood favorites. A lot of times, just like in the movie, a lot of times you revisit and it’s not what you remember. It doesn’t evoke the same feelings, but SpongeBob holds up. And as a kid, it’s like liking SpongeBob was gay, liking SpongeBob wasn’t cool. And then it is so amazing to see how many people my age on TikTok, and Instagram, and stuff, all their reference points are SpongeBob quotes. I love that. It’s like we were all watching it. It’s unifying.

Does this movie provoke any kind of existential question within yourself about… I don’t want to give too much away, but the question of whether it’s worse to lose yourself to your imagination or lose your imagination is explored in the film.

I realize I didn’t answer the second part of your last question, but I feel like that kind of has to do with this, where I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with obsessing over media, obsessing over a show, or a movie, or a book that just calls you, that you really connect to. Because I think that a lot of times as people, when we’re shaping our identities, specifically in our youth, we need reference points. And there’s a reason why we’re attracted to things that we’re attracted to. And we don’t always live in safe environments to explore all that our identities can be. And media can be a lightning rod of experimentation. It can expedite the process of identity.

And connection.

Sure, yeah, connection as well. But I think that the power of art is seeing yourself represented. It doesn’t even have to be literally, it can be in a cartoon sponge or whatever. It could be in a vampire slayer, like Buffy or something, or whatever it is. But you find elements of that character, of that world that just ring out parts of you, authentic parts of you. And I think that’s really important to self-formation.

If I turn this camera around, it’s just a whole wall of stuff that I’m sparing you from having to see – Batman statues, Indiana Jones, Thundercats. So obviously, I’m very much in line with the things that I grew up with, things that I love, but I’m also conscious that there is a danger sometimes in falling too far down that rabbit hole, and closing yourself off to other art, and new things, and new experiences, and new characters, and new worlds. Is that ever a concern: finding too much comfort, too much comfort food in the media that we love? Is that ever a concern, in your opinion?

I think that’s a really good question. I think that anything in excess can be dangerous, but I don’t know why I’m leaning towards the solace of fantasy. The solace of escapism.

I think sometimes it’s that it’s a chaotic world and whatever gets you through the night, to quote an old song.

Exactly. Whatever helps you. I don’t think the world is that safe of a place. And so, it is all of our individual journeys to parent ourselves and to find our safe spaces, and find the things that regulate us. That is our responsibility as individuals. And so, if that for you is Batman, or if that for you is a film, or a TV show, or a movie, then so be it. If that calms you, if that helps you get through the day, helps you get through life, I think that is the beauty of art. That is why people have been making art since the beginning of time. I think the imagination is a beautiful thing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with living in it.

‘I Saw The TV Glow’ is in limited theaters right now and goes wide release on May 17.