The Austin Chronicle

Ghost World

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

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 24, 2001

Ghost World's Enid (Birch), a recent high-school grad, is a character who knows what she doesn't want out of life -- which is not the same thing as saying that she's an alienated teen or a rebellious youth. Implicit in her negativism is something instinctively hopeful that guides her rejection of all that appears petty and unworthy. It's like she runs through life's obstacle course lined with dreariness and dolts yet keeps her eyes fixed on the prize: the belief that purity and honesty await at the other end. Although she has little of the disillusionment that is sure to come later in life, Enid harbors few illusions either. She has much in common with The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield: Neither has any patience with phonies or pretense. The comparison of Ghost World to J.D. Salinger's masterwork is not idle praise: I think Ghost World offers one of the best portraits of teen anomie this side of Catcher in the Rye. Based on the eponymous underground comic book by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World was adapted for film by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff, the man behind the revelatory documentary Crumb. Obviously, Zwigoff has a special feel for these graphic artists, and he proves quite adept at translating their stripped-down sensibilities for the screen. In particular, Zwigoff captures the vacant mediocrity that Clowes' comic book also decries: the strip malls and chain franchises and trendiness that increasingly dumb down modern life and give it a ghostly appearance. Enid is smarter than most, and so is her best friend Rebecca (Johansson). Their intelligence makes them outsiders and draws them together, but now that their high school days are over Rebecca is showing signs of wanting to move on with her life. Enid only knows that going to college and getting an apartment are just such ordinary ambitions and, as such, part of that which she does not want. Yet her attempt to work in a movie theatre ends in failure too when her frankness proves a liability in the service sector. In what began as a cruel goof, Enid finds herself drawn to schleppy Seymour (Buscemi), a much older collector of 78rpm records. She finds a purity in his love for what he does and his devotion to such arcane subject matter. But their differences in age make a relationship inappropriate and their mutual discomfort with the contrivances of flirtation make their meetings kind of jerky and hamstrung. Everyone is wonderfully cast in this movie: Buscemi is dead-on perfect (and the house party he throws for his fellow collectors is a sequence filled with priceless dialogue and a catbird view of nerdy obsessives), Birch is fresh from her role in American Beauty and again demonstrates her freedom from teen movie clich├ęs and affectation, and Johansson (Manny & Lo, The Horse Whisperer) is another young actor whose sensitivity and talent belie her age. Also good in small roles are Balaban as Enid's milquetoast single father, Garr as his love interest who drives Enid nuts, Renfro as Enid and Rebecca's sole pal, and Douglas in the role of the politically correct remedial art teacher in the summer-school course Enid is required to take. Ghost World resists convenient closures and summaries and some may take issue with its open-endedness. But anything else would have been phony, and Enid would never have stood for it. (See Marc Savlov's interview with Terry Zwigoff in last week's Screens section.)

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