Ghost World
directed by Terry Zwigoff
(United Artists, 2001)

About three-quarters of the way through Ghost World, Enid sits down next to Warren, an older man who spends most of his days on a streetside bench, waiting for a bus at a stop that's been out-of-service for a good two years.

"You're like the only person in this world that I can count on," she tells Warren.

"That's what you think," says Warren, leaning forward to look down the street toward the nonexistent bus. "I'm leaving town."

That's just one of a dozen or more similar vignettes which warn viewers that Ghost World is not your usual teen-angst film, even if it documents the first post-high-school summer of two of filmdom's most angst-filled teens.

In fact, director Terry Zwigoff's opening sequence tells viewers they're in for something very different, even if they can't make much sense of it: A Latino dance troupe performs an over-the-top routine while Zwigoff's camera pans down a city street peering in one window after another to reveal what the neighbors are up to, eventually entering Enid's bedroom, where she's dancing about in time to the music blaring from her TV. Then cut to Enid's graduation, where Enid and her friend Becky get some last-second amusement out of a paralyzed classmate's high-hopes commencement speech.

"I liked her better when she was an alcoholic crack addict," Enid says.

Thus, little more than three minutes into his film, Zwigoff, who's best known for his film biography of '60s icon Robert Crumb, has set the style and tone of his offbeat drama -- a voyeuristic look at the lives of people who live from one scathing line to the next, middle-class outcasts who can't explain their ostracism, who can only wallow in it or run from it, sometimes both at once.

Thora Birch is perfectly cast as Enid, the teen-ager with a complete list of things she doesn't want to do but no clue as to what she does. Scarlett Johansson is equally effective as her best friend, Rebecca, whose sudden pursuit of middle-class values is about to make her an outcast from the outcasts.

But things don't really get rolling until they meet Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a middle-aged vinyl LP collector and longtime loser. And what begins as a cruel practical joke -- Enid and Rebecca answer a personal ad Seymour placed just to see who shows up -- unleashes an economy-sized vat of karma that destabilizes the fragile but fixed world of alienation Enid and Rebecca have shared all their teen lives.

Ghost World is definitely not for all tastes. If you thought Welcome to the Dollhouse was a downer, prepare to explore some even lower depths here. Also, be prepared to see and hear some of the funniest things you've ever experienced in your life -- from very flat shots of Enid and Rebecca stalking a couple of "satanists" to Enid and Seymour's trip through a local porn shop.

Birch, for all her talent, is an unlikely leading lady. And can anyone recall Buscemi (Fargo) ever having been a leading man? The odds that they'll ever again play leads together would have to be measured with a micrometer and an electron microscope. So catch this one while you can. Films like Ghost World are too good to miss. Even on those rare occasions when Zwigoff does.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 18 May 2002

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