Producers: Emma Stone, Dave McCary, Ali Herting, Sam Intili and Sarah Winshall    Director: Jane Schoenbrun    Screenplay: Jane Schoenbrun   Cast: Justice Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Helena Howard, Danielle Deadwyler, Fred Durst, Ian Foreman, Lindsey Jordan, Conner O’Malley and Emma Portner   Distributor: A24

Grade: C+

One of the oddest—but most bizarrely stylish—portrayals of adolescent angst and alienation ever made, Jane Schoenbrun’s surrealistic film follows Owen (played as a thirteen-year old by Ian Foreman and in his later years by Justice Smith) from 1996 to the present. 

As a seventh grader he’s a timid momma’s boy—Brenda (Danielle Deadwyler) hovers, but dies young of cancer, while her husband Frank (Fred Durst) is brusque and distant—who’s addicted to television.  (At one point in response to a query about whether he likes boys or girls, he says he likes TV shows.  It might remind you of Chance the Gardener’s famous line, “I like to watch.”)  He’s fascinated by commercials advertising a show called “The Pink Opaque,” which resembles a cross between a YA series from the fledgling WB Network and “The X-Files” (Schoenbrun cites “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as an inspiration)—and which Frank refers to as a “girls’ show.”  But Owen’s not allowed to watch it, because it’s broadcast on Saturday nights at 10:30pm, after his bedtime.

He lucks out, though, when he accidentally spies ninth-grader Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) reading a “companion book” to the show in the school hallway.  She’s a devoted fan, shares the book with him, and invites him to sneak over to her place and watch the program with her and her friend Amanda (Emma Portner).  He does, pretending to go for a sleepover at a friend’s house.  And when that ruse has to be abandoned, she makes VHS tapes for him, to which she adds commentary of her own bringing him up to speed on the show’s narrative.  In the meantime Maddy has become a pariah on campus after cheerleader Amanda accused her of trying to touch her breasts.

“The Pink Opaque,” as presented in numerous inserts, centers on two girls, Isabel (Helena Howard) and Tara (Lindsey Jordan), who discover during a stay at summer camp that they share a psychic bond.  It allows them to perceive a villain, Mr. Melancholy, who appears as a menacing Man in the Moon (also played by Portner).  Each week he sends a monster into the world to wreak havoc, and the girls do battle against it.  In the realization  of production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly, costumer Rachel Dainer-Best, effects supervisor Yuval Levy, cinematographer Eric Yue, editor Sofi Marshall and composer Alex G, the show looks like a half-remembered, cryptic fever dream of sounds and images in shimmering blues, purples and pinks, though admittedly the accompanying “real world” they create in contrast to it is pretty strange on its own–all dark, gloomy and claustrophobic.

A couple of years later, Maddy, despondent over her life, announces to Owen that she has to leave town to survive, and invites him to come with her.  He doesn’t and she disappears, leaving a burning TV in her family’s backyard as a parting act.  But she doesn’t neglect to send Owen a tape of their show’s final episode, in which the fate of Isabel and Tara appears intertwined with his own, causing him horrifically to briefly become one with the set on which he’s watching it.

A decade later Owen is working at a seedy movie theatre when Maddy reappears and proposes that she and Owen embrace their joint connection with Isabel and Tara, and their place in the universe of “The Pink Opaque,” directly, but again he refuses; she disappears once more, and Frank’s death prompts him to replace their old TV with a large-scale model on which he watches the program in streaming form and finds it, contrary to his memories, cheap, childish rubbish. Some years further on, he’s working as a server at a “family” restaurant when he has a very public meltdown in which the program returns in an unsettling form reminiscent of the most lurid extremes of “Videodrome.”

The allusion to that film is appropriate, since Schoenbrun’s approach is indebted to Cronenberg’s fascination with the invasion of technology into the human psyche.  But the purpose of “The Pink Opaque” is to connect that idea with the experience of young people undergoing dysphoria, and to do so in a particularly nightmarish fashion. 

The result is itself opaque and at times nearly risible, and will frustrate and antagonize many viewers; but it’s also weirdly unsettling and hard to dismiss.  Smith, Lundy-Paine and Foreman commit themselves to the Schoenbrun’s unnerving vision with complete conviction, and together with the equally committed technical team deliver a film that’s part horror movie and part sociological commentary, but also deeply personal.