Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban
MPAA Rating: (for strong language and some sexual content)
Running Time: 1:51
Release Date: 8/3/01
Review by Mark Dujsik
Ghost World takes the usual cheerful teen comedy and turns it into a sarcastic, cynical, bitter creature full of angst, anger, and a certain deep, desperate loneliness. It’s not nearly as depressing as I’ve made it sound, though; it’s actually quite an amusing little satire. Its purpose isn’t necessarily to mock any particular institution but to take its broad characterizations and very slowly try to make us see the world from their perspective. The world of the film is populated by loners and losers, and the movie appeals to the loner and loser in each of us almost to the point of excluding every other aspect of our being. It assumes that we’ll immediately relate to its misanthropic, selfish main characters. It takes time, though, and essentially the movie is about coming to an understanding about people and their motivations and lifestyles by actually making a conscious effort to do so.
Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World focuses on two best friends, Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) who have just graduated from high school and are the only students from their graduating class not heading on to college. They’ve been outsiders for some time, so they don’t really care what anyone has to say about their decision. Instead they’re going to fulfill their dreams and move into an apartment together. Rebecca holds a steady job, and Enid simply cannot put up with people, which is a problem considering they make up the large majority of customers. To help pass the time, Enid answers a personal ad made by Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely music-lover/rare vinyl collector looking for a woman he randomly helped and has not seen since. At first the prank causes some mild amusement for the girls, but Enid sees that Seymour is truly hurt by the joke and secretly follows him around to try and see what makes him tick.
The film is mostly about relationships—Enid’s relationship with Rebecca, Seymour, her father (played by the always appropriate Bob Balaban), and pretty much anyone else in the movie. Many of the relationships are throwaways. Enid and her father represent the typical adolescent-parent relationship. He is concerned for her well-being; she hardly listens. He is blind to his daughter’s feelings about the woman he starts dating again; she is resentful of this. A fellow classmate named Josh (Brad Renfro), who works at the convenience store, is there to provide transportation and a conscience, while an art teacher (played by the very funny Illeana Douglas) provides shallow, fickle criticism. These are relatively unimportant in comparison to the film’s primary relationships. The relationship between Enid and Rebecca is not established completely, but the film begins at a turning point in their friendship. This is the beginning of the end and not necessarily the best time to get to know them.
The film centers around Enid and Seymour, and once you get past the creepy context of their connection (it seems like a weird fantasy considering the screenplay was written by two men—Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff), it is rather fascinating. Here are two people so lost in their loneliness and exclusion from regular society that they seem instinctively drawn to each other. It’s in this relationship that the film reaches a certain level of poignancy. On its most basic level, the main relationship can be seen as a lesson in the practice of getting to know a person before making a judgment on their character—finding that there’s something to actually like about people. On a more complicated level, Enid and Seymour provide a study of individuals who don’t want to or simply cannot let go. Two scenes really hit upon this theme. The first involves a makeshift garage sale where Enid won’t let anyone buy anything, and the other is a very quiet moment where she listens to a record on a child’s record player and simply looks at an old stuffed animal. Birch and Buscemi are outstanding in these roles. Birch plays sarcastic very well and also buries a level of sadness to Enid. Buscemi abandons a line of scuzzy characters and really shows a vulnerability and loneliness similar to his great performance in Trees Lounge.
It’s in these quiet moments that the film has its moments of honesty and in its small details that it has its moments of hilarity. There’s too much of a focus to be a broad satire of society, and the observations about the girls is flawed in the way that it pretends they are ostracized by choice. There’s an element of forced removal missing, and that’s vital to the ability to sympathize with these characters. But they do eventually begin to grow on us. They go through a lot of growth, and we get the feeling there’s much more by the time the film ends. Just like its characters, I have a feeling Ghost World gets better with familiarity.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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