Ghost World

After suffering through an endless parade of summer movies geared towards teenagers who like to have their “American Pie” spoon fed to them, along comes “Ghost World,” an edgy, uncompromising, darkly comic film that defies tradition and convention.

Based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, “Ghost World” puts the modern disenfranchised teen under a microscope, and what we see is a world filled with uncertainty and doubt.

Thora Birch, the former child actress who graduated to adult roles with full honors in “American Beauty,” delivers a heartfelt, complex performance as Enid, a recent high school graduate who thinks she has her life and future all laid out.

When we first meet Enid, she and her best friend Rebecca, the always dependable Scarlett Johansson, are suffering through one of those endless graduation speeches delivered by a classmate in a wheelchair. The edgy tone of the film is instantly established when the girls complain that the valedictorian was much more fun before she got drunk and had an automobile accident, ending up in the wheelchair.

Enid and Rebecca plan to get jobs, move in together, and start their adult lives. That’s the plan. Instead, Enid is shocked to learn that she has to attend summer school because she flunked of all things art. While Enid toils away in art class, Rebecca ends up getting a job at the local mall in one of those Starbuck rip-offs, where the girls wind up passing judgment on everyone but themselves.

Steve Buscemi enters the picture, playing a lonely, shy man named Seymour who collects old 78s and spends most of his time summoning the courage to ask women out. Enid and Rebecca meet Seymour when they answer one of his personal ads, stringing him along as a joke. Then Enid gets to know Seymour and suspects that she has found a soul mate.

As Enid and Seymour explore their new relationship, Rebecca finds herself pursuing the future the girls always talked about. The more we learn about Enid, the more we understand that she is destined to be alone. Her dark interior dialogues and inability to connect with people on a real, emotional level drive most of the people in her life away.

Enid wants independence, but still lives with her dad, played by the wonderful Bob Balaban, and her ex-stepmother, an engaging bit by Teri Garr. She wants acceptance, but is unwilling to embrace anyone or anything in her life. She’s passionate, but lacks conviction. She can’t hold down a job for more than a day because she’s not a people person.

Maybe it’s because people don’t get her. Enid dresses in retro punk, a fashion faux pas that seems outdated to those around her. Enid isn’t behind the times, she’s making a statement. She knows exactly who she is and what she wants.

Birch is brilliant in her attempt at getting under the skin of Enid. Enid is sort of an extension of the character Birch played in “American Beauty.” As Kevin Spacey’s distant daughter, Birch showed an amazing range of angst and confusion. As Enid, she explores an even darker side of teenage turmoil.

Steve Buscemi is extremely likeable as Seymour, a man who understands and accepts his limitations. When Enid and Seymour realize that they’re not destined to be a couple, Enid tries to set him up with other women. Seymour immediately sets down the ground rules. He doesn’t want someone who shares his interests because he finds himself uninteresting.

Perhaps that is what drew Enid and Seymour together in the first place. They are as different as night and day, but these opposites hold an attraction for each other that transcends conventional romance.

“Ghost World” benefits from brave performances, both in front of and behind the camera. Illeana Douglas shines as the summer school art teacher, a former hippie who knows more about free expression than art. Brad Renfro is also fine as the convenience store clerk the girls love to tease and admire, another lost soul just trying to make it through the day.

The film is blessed to have “Crumb” director Terry Zwigoff at the helm, a man who isn’t afraid to take chances. Zwigoff is one of those directors who never flinches, and there are times when “Ghost World” becomes so risky you appreciate having a director on board who can go the distance.

The screenplay by Zwigoff and Clowes is a powerful reminder of what intelligent, provocative dialogue can do for characters and story. We embrace these characters, even at their most unpleasant moments, because they are human and vulnerable. They remind us of people we have shared our lives and dreams with.

Zwigoff creates a surreal environment to contain all of this, a kitschy blend of 50’s nostalgia smothered by a modern sensibilities. The look of the film is vital. Is what we are seeing real, or is it a dream? This visual ambiguity is perfectly realized by cinematographer Affonso Beato and production designer Edward T. McAvoy, who create a David Lynch-like landscape where anything can happen.

“Ghost World” may not be your typical teen flick, but that is its calling card. The film doesn’t wrap things up in a pretty little bow with a conventional feel good ending. It challenges you, and any film and filmmaker that cares to lay down that challenge has my respect and admiration.

If you’re tastes lean more towards Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” than anything starring Shannon Elizabeth, then “Ghost World” will haunt you with its audacity and daring.


There’s a lot of satiric sting in edgy teen drama


Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Rated R. 111 Minutes


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