Ghost World
Accentuate the negative !

USA, 2001. Rated R. 111 minutes.

Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, Brad Renfro, Stacey Travis, Charles C. Stevenson Jr, Dave Sheridan, Tom McGowan, Debra Azar, Brian George, Pate Healy, Ezra Buzzington, Teri Garr
Writers: Daniel Clowes & Terry Zwigoff, based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes
Music: David Kitay
Cinematographer: Affonso Beato
Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith
Director: Terry Zwigoff


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Twenty years ago, Amy Heckerling and John Hughes popularized a new kind of comedy: the teen movie. Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sixteen Candles laughed fondly at their high school protagonists, who, burdened by pressure from peers and hopelessly out-of-touch authority figures to conform in one way or another, stumbled through seemingly arbitrary rites of passage. Those films empathized with how hard it is sometimes to be a teen, validating their feelings of angst and alienation, so often pooh-poohed by adults.

Now those movies are nearly twenty years old, and a new wave of teen movies has hit theaters, targeted to a new generation of filmgoers--movies like She's All That and Save the Last Dance. For all the supposed raunchiness of movies like American Pie, most these films have a sweet heart. But one can't help observing a key difference between these and the teen movies of yesteryear: today there is far less negativity. Movies celebrate teen culture now, while the darker fare of the Eighties subvert it. Take, for example, Bring It On, a pleasant entertainment that actually honors cheerleading--cheerleading--as a legitimate extracurricular teen pursuit, or Clueless, which sided with its bubbleheaded protagonist, the most popular girl in her class. Even 10 Things I Hate About You ultimately taught the outsider to accept her peers and fit in. (In an odd reversal, more adult-oriented films like Election and American Beauty have portrayed the difficult, often tortuous journey to adulthood better than their youth-oriented contemporaries.)
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In the Eighties, teen movies argued that it is okay and even understandable to be an outsider. The blockbuster success of The Breakfast Club was due more to its powerful anti-exclusionary message than it was to the presence of a memorable story (there wasn't one) or its negligible comedic elements, and the murderous antihero of Heathers would have gleefully exterminated the cheerleaders of Bring It On. Even the lightest Eighties teen comedies (Weird Science and Better Off Dead, for example) identified with the "geeks" and skewered the "popular" kids--even Revenge of the Nerds, which sympathized more with its titular losers than their preppie torturers. As Suzanne Vega sang on the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink ("If you want me/You can find me/Left of center/Off of the strip/In the outskirts/In the fringes"), teen comedies were about the marginalized on the fringes of teen culture.

One of the latest entries in the genre is Ghost World, the new and first entirely fictional film by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), based on the graphic novel of the same name. Going against the grain of current teen entertainment, Ghost World is as far away from Dude, Where's My Car? as one can get. For that reason, it's difficult even to think of it as a "teen movie"--it seems more like an anti-teen movie--until one remembers the teen films of the Eighties. Ghost World is a cinematic return to the fringes.

The heroine of Ghost World is Enid (Thora Birch), a disaffected young woman not unlike Birch's Jane Burnham in American Beauty. She and her best friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), love to sit on the sidelines and make snarky comments about the world around them. Sometimes they go as far as to torture the objects of their scorn, and one day, while looking through the personals, they find an all-too-pathetic target: a lonely middle-aged record-collecting geek (Steve Buscemi, in a quiet and beautifully modulated performance).Johansson and Birch

Enid and Rebecca seem smug, like they've got it all figured out, but Enid's snark disguises a profound loneliness, and making fun of other people is an inadequate comfort. It's patently obvious that the solution does not lie in reconnecting with her peers, however; she has long since outgrown them and repudiated their world by choice, not out of necessity. To her surprise, she finds herself drawn to the record collector, Seymour. Unlike virtually everyone else she knows, Seymour is a man of what-you-see-is-what-you-get straightforwardness and offbeat interests, and no doubt Enid also identifies with Seymour's own self-hatred. To his bewilderment, Enid appoints herself Seymour's new best friend. Where she once disparaged his efforts to find love, she then encourages him to go out and meet women, declaring that she hates the idea of a world where Seymour can't get a date.

Meanwhile, having just graduated high school (except for the fact that Enid must take a summer art course taught by flaky performance-artist Illeana Douglas, who believes that political meaning is more important than form, technique, or emotional expression), Enid and Rebecca dream of getting an apartment. For Enid, the apartment represents a kind of misanthropic sanctuary, as well as a means out of her home and away from her pathetically ineffectual father (Bob Balaban), who is busy rekindling his relationship with the dreaded Maxine (Teri Garr). But for Rebecca, the apartment represents forging ahead into adulthood. She is showing disturbing signs of wanting to integrate herself into the real world. The apartment requires getting a job, and Rebecca does so enthusiastically. But Enid is ill at ease pumping goop on popcorn at the movie concession stand. As Enid's relationship with Seymour deepens, she and Rebecca drift apart.

Though heartbreaking, Ghost World has also a sublime sense of dark humor, playing on Enid's efforts to exist in a world of overly perky people and frauds, all of whom might as well be space aliens as far as she is concerned. As Enid, Birch navigates between acerbic wit and aching vulnerability, frequently communicating Enid's inner life just with her eyes--which so often seem to say, "Who are these people?" It's as if Enid, wise beyond her years, is the only person in the world who sees clearly. What she perceives is that the world is brimming with hypocrisy, and her instinct is to expose it. Naturally, this gets her into trouble…repeatedly.

Teen movie or not, a film like Ghost World should not have a tidy ending that ties everything up with a pretty bow, and it doesn't, providing a touching closure for only one character. The ending can be interpreted in two different ways (at least!), uplifting or disturbingly grim. The metaphor Zwigoff employs provides food for thought, but it's acutely dissatisfying not knowing where Enid's story goes from there. Regardless of its destination, Ghost World has gone where few teen films are now willing to go--a thoughtful entry in a genre that has lately lacked thoughtfulness.

Note: Stick around until the end of the credits for an amusing outtake.

Review © August 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 United Artist Films. All Rights Reserved.

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