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Ghost World (2001)

 

Starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, David Cross and Illeana Douglas
Director: Terry Zwigoff

Rating: R

Studio: MGM

Review Posted: 7.17.01

Rating: 4/4

 

By Sara M. Fetters.

"Ghost World is Ethereal Perfection"

 

Teen films are all the rage anymore. It seems that every studio in Hollywood is clamoring to fill their production dockets with a ragtag group of movies featuring every young, fresh-faced actor they can find (most of them seemingly being supplied by the WB Network’s never-ending reserve). Why? For one thing, they’re incredibly cheap to produce. Another? Once in a while a studio strikes gold with one of these pimple-free variants (American Pie, Bring it On, Scream) and the profits pour down like rain.

 

One problem: 90% of these films stink. So much so that the thought of sitting through another one – no matter how promising it looks on paper – is almost like the thought of nails on a chalk board.

 

Then it must be admitted that going in to Ghost World there was a little trepidation on my part. As much as I loved Terry Zwigoff’s prior film, the sublime and brilliant documentary Crumb, I knew nothing of Daniel Clowes graphic novel on which the film was based and documentary directors are typically hit-and-miss when they make the transition to features.

 

That said, Ghost World is one of a handful of must-see films to come out this year. Like other modern-day teen classics Rushmore and Election, it has a quirky sensibility that while inherently realistic seldom translates to success at the box office. It’s a sneaky, snide and cynical masterpiece of urban dystopia seen through the eyes of youth and ranks as one of the best American films so far this year.

 

In this case, it’s youth through the eyes of Enid (Thora Birch, American Beauty) and her best fried Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, The Horse Whisperer, Manny & Lo), two supremely ironic teenagers now faced with the uncertainty of life after high school. This life, in all it surreal and eclectic nature, forces the girls to reexamine their aspirations and ideas, putting strains on a relationship once above the fray.

 

Much like in everyday reality, the film plays like a serious of small vignettes interweaving characters and visions of everyday life many have experienced but very few get a chance to see. The vagaries of youth are played out amongst the flirtatious glances towards the local convenience store clerk Josh (the dead-pan perfect Brad Renfro who can be currently seen in Larry Clark’s powerful Bully), a friend the girl’s use to get around town in his rusted up car. Thrown in the mix are Enid’s loving father (Bob Balaban, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), an eccentric art teacher (Illeana Douglas, To Die For) and Seymour (the great Steve Buscemi) who at first glance appears to be your stereotypical geeky collector but upon further inspection is a stirringly deep and searching soul.

 

Everything about this film works. Clowes and Zwigoff’s screenplay is a model of original perfection, while the latter’s unerring direction is sublime in its subtlety. Recovering nicely from the disaster that was Dungeons & Dragons, young Birch once more showcases her radiant talent as an actress. If there was any justice in the world she would be considered a front-runner for an Oscar nomination but, as was proved by Reese Witherspoon in Election, she’ll probably have to settle for an Independent Spirit nomination instead.

 

It must be said, however, that all of the actors shine in Ghost World. Balaban’s few scenes where his attempts at communication with his daughter dissolve into unintelligible two word sentences is funny and heartbreaking all at once, so close to the reality of parent/child communication. Johansson and Renfro hit their characters right on and Douglas once again proves to be one of the most underutilized actors in Hollywood. Yet, it’s Buscemi who truly stands out amongst the supporting cast, making Seymour a richly drawn, deeply human creation. It’s some of the best work the actor has ever done and it is easy to see why he was the runner up for the Best Actor award at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

 

There is so much about this movie to love and cherish. Fleshing out all its beautifully off-center layers takes multiple viewing and the resolution is refreshingly unclear, much like life. In a world of films that pertain to be about teenage and young adult life yet hold nothing but the most quaint and cliché-ridden ideals at heart, Ghost World shines bright as a film that most be cherished.

 

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