Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Child's Play: IF and I SAW THE TV GLOW

John Krasinski’s IF is a miserable, infantilizing family film that disrespects children and adults in equal measure. It’s advertised as coming to us “from the imagination of…” the Office actor turned writer/director. If his Quiet Place movies, workmanlike horror pictures with modest charms, were enough to convince you he had one, here’s reason to doubt. It’s sloppy, sentimental hogwash about Imaginary Friends abandoned by children who grew up and forgot them. One girl (Cailey Fleming) encounters some of them corralled by a tired, impish ringleader and caretaker (Ryan Reynolds). She’s sad because she has to live with her grandma (Fiona Shaw) while her dad (Krasinski) undergoes surgery for an unnamed ailment. For all we know, he merely has a terminal case of whimsy, what with his few scenes eventually petering out with limp quips and smirking self-satisfied pauses for laughs or tears that never arrive. Since the girl’s mom died of implied cancer in the opening montage, it’s understandable that she’s leery to see her dad in the hospital, and amazing she doesn’t get more exasperated by mild japes like dancing with an IV bag on which he’s placed googly eyes, or when he hides in the closet and pretends to have escaped out the window with a ladder of bedsheets. She reacts to this struggle by retreating into her creativity. Or does she? It’s all a bit too simple to be this fuzzy.

The crux of the ostensible emotion is the group of CG creatures wandering melancholically without their former children—creatures that only the girl and Reynolds can see. They all look like Monsters, Inc rejects and have big name cameo voices that rarely register as such, while they mope about doing nothing. The movie wants us to think it’s sad that they’ve been forgotten and should be reunited. But they aren’t real characters and never do anything for anyone. Ah, maybe they reawaken an inner child of some grump for a moment of two. But to what end? It’s best scenes—anything involving Shaw, a dance number to Tina Turner, the girl’s eventual tearful, spit-flecked bedside breakdown—feel dropped in from a better movie, one without its cloying contradictions and flat staging. Here’s a movie that tries to be an ode to youthful imagination being a balm for troubled times. Instead it bumbles its way into saying that we should never grow up and put away childish things. It’s arguing in favor of a permanent immaturity. Why? Because it’s a cheap hit of feel-good when confronting adult emotions is too difficult. Yeesh. We’re not exactly a society overcrowded with maturity.

Ironically, IF’s opposite is likely playing in the theater across the hall in a big enough multiplex. Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow is a slow, entranced nightmare about getting trapped in childhood nostalgia. It conjures a fuzzy, bleary vibe and rides its off-kilter tremors to an odd, grotesque ending. The intimate movie follows two isolated, disaffected adolescents in the late-90’s getting hooked on a weird television program about psychic teenage girls fighting phantasmagoric monsters. Clearly a blend of X-Files, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? it’s easy to see why a freakish blend of kid-friendly plotting and woozy creature design airing late at night would mesmerize a young teen. These two kids seem especially prone to getting drawn into such an enveloping fantasy. One is a quiet, awkward, friendless 7th grade boy (Ian Foreman, though he grows into narrator Justice Smith) whose mother (Danielle Deadwyler) is dying and father (Fred Durst) is distant. The other is a lonely 9th grade girl (Brigette Lundy-Paine) from an abusive home. She introduces him to the creepy show, and is totally into its lore, such that it starts to become the architecture of her fantasies of running away. He's scared and hooked in equal measure. As Schoenbrun gives the interactions between the teens the kind of goosebump intimacy of lost souls connecting in their brokenness, the camera’s slowly mesmerized imagery lends a grainy, hushed suburban dreaminess and creeping dread.

It speaks directly to people who allow their adolescent obsessions to overtake their personality and identity, replacing satisfying adult pursuits with increasingly hollow simulacra of real experience. It becomes a way to avoid inner truths. Suddenly, a childish idea grows and darkens and inflates in complexity and importance. A key scene is when, late in the picture, so spoilers ahoy, our lead re-watches the show as an adult and finds something almost embarrassingly quaint. All that for this? This new view rattles and echoes off a maybe-imagined reunion that devolves into a darkly dreamy magical-realist monologue. How sad when love of a TV show seems to hide what you'd express as something truer about your identity than you’re ready to admit. And how frustrating to be unable to let that childhood comfort fantasy go. The movie’s mood is so intensely focused on the hypnotic tremors of this cultish entrapment bleeding between fantasy and reality that the final moments of the picture—clangs of hallucinatory violence followed by embarrassments, deflating and awkward—bring some kind of cringing reality crashing in. It’s about an inner hollowness that can never be filled so long as you’re chasing the unattainable—nostalgia, television, your adolescent understanding of your future, or your adult longing for youth. It’s ultimately a hazy movie feeling like a half-remembered nightmare slowly leaving your head after waking on the couch in the middle of the night, bathed in the TV glow.

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