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GHOST WORLD(director/writer: Terry Zwigoff; screenwriter: based on Daniel Clowes’s comic book series; cinematographer: Affonso Beato; editor: Carole Kravetz; cast: Thora Birch (Enid), Scarlett Johansson (Rebecca), Steve Buscemi (Seymour), Brad Renfro (Josh), Bob Balaban (Enid’s Father), Illeana Douglas (Roberta), Teri Garr (Maxine), Stacey Travis (Dana), Tom McGowan (Joe), Rini Bell (Graduation Speaker), Dave Sheridan (Convenience Store Customer); Runtime: 111; United Artists; 2001)
“I honestly can’t remember how long its been since I have seen a teenage film as memorable as this one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

At last a black comedy, coming-of-age, romantic melodrama about teenagers in rebellion that is not a formulaic clichéd one and actually makes an attempt to flesh out the character of a teen who is searching for something that is not trivial, as she lashes back at being stuck in the urban sprawl scene of LA that is inhabited by so many shallow and phony people. It’s filmed by documentary filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, a nerd himself, who gave us the excellent documentary “Crumb.” Ghost World is based on Daniel Clowes’s underground comic book series–though the story is dramatically expanded. The comic book drawings were done by Robert Crumb’s daughter Sophie. He, of course, is the great comic book illustrator.

It’s a film that best captures the uncertainty in the life of a very bright recent high school graduate who is a misfit, Enid (Thora Birch). She uses intellectual barbs and pure scorn to fend off her foes who are: anyone new she meets, waiters, would-be friends and even her appeasing single-parent dad (Balaban) and his girlfriend (Garr) she can’t stomach because of her pushiness. She saves most of her wrath for her vacuous high school classmates, all of whom are preoccupied either with going to college, fitting into society or going straight into the serious workforce. She and her girlfriend Rebecca (Johansson) choose not to go to college, get involved with boys, or plan for a career. They are close high school friends who will soon have a more distant relationship, as they have different needs and can’t keep up their intense friendship when out of the school environment–which gave them their common enemy: the high school.

Enid has one obstacle before getting her high school diploma, she must go to summer school to take a remedial art appreciation course she failed. She’s saddled with a gooey teacher (Illeana Douglas) who makes art secondary to conforming with society, as she praises the students who create safe politically correct art works rather than praising those who take risks and create works of art. She promises much to Enid and, as one might expect, delivers little.

Rebecca who is attractive and Aryan looking, identifies with the Jewish Enid. She decides to work at a pretentious coffee shop and get an apartment with Enid. Enid, meanwhile, fumbles a popcorn vender job in a movie theater by mistreating the customers and spends the summer mischievously searching for something that she doesn’t even know she’s looking for.

The main plot develops out of a tasteless joke the girls play on a loser, who put an ad in the personals of a local newspaper for the blonde woman he met at the airport to call him. Enid calls pretending to be that woman and leaves a message on his answering machine to meet at a vintage ’50s retro diner. The girlfriends get Josh (Renfro), a classmate now working at a counter job at a convenience shop, to go with them to see what this dwork looks like. He turns out to be a loner named Seymour (Steve Buscemi). When she meets this much older man, whose passion is collecting valuable 78 rpm records of old-fashioned country and blues music and old advertising art, she’s surprised that they have similar socially unacceptable personalities that are unbending. She’s, at last, met her kindred soulmate, but they are both such social misfits that even though they match up so well they can’t get together. Seymour obsessively collects things to make up for not having relationships. At first goofing on him, she helps him find a woman. When the real Dana calls, Enid becomes jealous. Seymour is now willing to compromise to date Dana, as he curiously says “I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests.”

Seymour works days at a nondescript managerial office job for a fast-food chicken place, that once had the racist name of Coon’s Chicken but changed to Cooks to avoid any controversy.

Through Seymour’s unapologetic loneliness Enid sees her own. This film is not geared for a predictable or a happy ending, but it’s this relationship with all its incongruities that is so fascinating, touching and tender to behold. The poetical ending is fitting for such a free flowing story. I honestly can’t remember how long its been since I have seen a teenage film as memorable as this one (Rushmore comes to mind as the closest).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”