Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have known each other since they were kids. They always had that us against them thing, hanging on the fringe of the world and having a good laugh at its expense while trying to figure out what other possibilities they have. Cause it’s easy to name what you don’t care for, what’s harder is pinpointing what you do want of life exactly. Like, now that they’re out of high school after yearning for years to be free to go their own way, they’re looking into getting jobs and an apartment, but things haven’t really changed overnight just because they’ve graduated. They’re still stuck in the land of mini malls and fake 50s dinners, home to the free but also the idiotic, the ridiculous and the pathetic. They still have their sarcasm, but even that’s wearing thin…
Thus is the setting of “Ghost World”, a fantastic little film with a very particular tragicomic tone. Often times, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry; the movie can be hilarious at times, but it can also get quite depressing. But then, through the helping hand of the movie gods, hope presents itself. Not in the form of phony Hollywood schmaltz, but in something nice and simple like making a new friend. Enid, meet Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a funny looking fortysomething loner who divides himself between an inconsequential desk job and his passion for vintage 20s and 30s blues 78″ records. He’s sort of a dork, but Enid is intrigued by him so they start spending time together and then… Well, you’ll see! Just don’t expect the usual clichés and forced resolutions. This isn’t a movie driven by bogus plot mechanics, but by the nature of its complex, unusual characters.
“Ghost World” is based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, who wrote the adaptation himself with Terry Zwigoff, who also directs. His first fiction feature, this is in the same vein as his acclaimed 1995 documentary “Crumb”, about famed cartoonist (and Zwigoff friend) Robert Crumb, a renown misfit. Both pictures denote an aversion for the mainstream and an affection for “beautiful losers”. Indeed, there’s real heart and truth to the film beyond the satirical jabs and the colourful visual look (which is in keeping with the illustrated source material). While the central figures are multi-dimensional and well defined, the people who revolve around them are seen as caricatures. There’s the out of touch father (Bob Balaban), the pushover buddy (Brad Renfro) who works at the 7-11, his Greek boss and the mulleted doofus who are always at each other’s throat, Enid’s kooky summer school art teacher (Illeana Douglas), the old man who waits all day every day at a bus stop even though that bus line has been cancelled… The broad strokes with which the supporting cast is drawn puts the leads more into perspective, and we get to see how shallow and bizarre the world appears to them.
Enid, as played by Thora Birch, is an original and compelling character. I like that even though she doesn’t fit in, she’s not a shy wallflower, she’s extraverted and outgoing. This differentiates her from Jane, Birch’s character in “American Beauty”: Enid doesn’t just mope, she creates her own style and gets her kicks her way, whether it be by wearing a Catwoman mask or following strange people. That’s how she gets to know Seymour, a character who’s actually not in the Eight Ball comics. He was created by Zwigoff as a variation of himself and friends of his (Crumb himself must have been an inspiration). Maybe this is his silly fantasy of getting laid by a cool young girl who “gets” him. One way or the other, Seymour is a wonderful part and Steve Buscemi is great in it. He’s often cast as an offbeat, nervous crook, but here we see a softer side of him. Birch and him make an unlikely couple, but they have chemistry and their relationship is surprisingly touching. “Ghost World” is short on noise and flash, but it’s one of the most genuine and smart films I’ve seen all year.