Ah, the films of summer. When they get it right, they win our hearts. A sublime treat with which to beat the heat, Ghost World deserves every bit of the praise that has been rolling its way. Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, LouieBluie) has conquered the jinx that so often afflicts filmmakers trying to make the transition from documentary to fiction. That he gets it right is due in no small part to his co-scenarist Daniel Clowes, whose cult comic Ghost World provides the raw material that here mutates so aptly into a loopy coming-of-age story packed with genius one-liners, the detritus of popular culture and a never-ending lineup of oddball characters. What is truly remarkable, though, is that these two 40-something guys have captured the world of teenage girls with sublime accuracy.
Best friends Enid (Thora Birch, who was so good in American Beauty) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, first discovered in Manny & Lo) have it all: Thrift-shop outfits–assembled with a jaundiced eye for fashion–accompany rooms packed with carefully edited stuff and attitude to match. Claiming their inalienable rights as teenagers, the two exercise an unmitigated scorn for all adults in the immediate vicinity and a consummate ability to reconfigure anyone via sassy vitriol. Ghost World opens on Enid and Rebecca’s high school graduation and chronicles their summer of discontent, by the end of which their friendship will be in tatters and their future prospects will be, well, reduced.
The summer after high school is quintessentially the time when the bravura hits the fan. Think Dazed and Confused for girls, and then imagine a completely different film: an anti-Clueless wrought by a sensibility seemingly shaped by reading The Catcher in the Rye at an impressionable age and carrying it forward to twenty-first-century suburbia. (That the suburb is Los Angeles as envisioned by a pair of San Francisco/Berkeley artistes guarantees that it’s meant to be a nightmare.) Almost without exception, Ghost World hits its target with a bull’s-eye. It renders, nearly pitch-perfect, the tone of teenage girls’ friendship–the overidentification and competition, the combined desire for and horror of boys/men, the simultaneous reinvention and rejection of femininity and the torment of succumbing to minimum-wage conformity while desperately trying to figure a way out.
Enid is part Goth, part Holden Caulfield. She’s first seen rocking out to a classic Indian Bollywood film and disdaining the dude music of her contemporaries and its pretentious practitioners. She narrativizes everyone in her path. Haunting cheap retro-1950s diners, Enid sketches the down-on-their-luck customers and constructs story lines for them with Rebecca, her inseparable but prettier pal, who may be less verbal but is equally disaffected (and woefully underwritten). They turn one pathetic couple into Satanists and make a lowlife crackpot into their private antihero. When a personals ad in the weekly paper (a plea from a “bookish fellow” to the woman he was too shy to speak to on an airplane) offers them an opportunity for a prank, it sets the film’s plot in motion. Enid and Rebecca impersonate the target, then trail their victim to the Wowsville diner for his no-show date.
They’re still kids, of course, for all their daring. That they’re being cruel doesn’t occur to them until mid-assignation. For Rebecca, the game is then over and it’s time to move on to the next best thing: getting jobs so they can afford their dream apartment. She finds employment at a Starbucks-esque cafe with its own retinue of oddballs, while Enid’s sole attempt at gainful employment is a hilarious disaster sure to thrill anyone who’s ever darkened a multiplex. She works–for one day–at a movie theater refreshment stand, where she’s ordered to push larger sizes than requested and warned to stop dissing the movies to the customers. Enid’s insolent enactment of these rules is hilarious and naturally leads to her departure from the, uh, profession. And leads her instead to Seymour.
Who’s Seymour? As embodied by Steve Buscemi in a career-elevating performance, Seymour is the sad-sack guy framed with the fake blind date. Post-prank, though, Enid gets curious and starts tailing him. Seymour may have his own adult dead-end job (professional life doesn’t fare well in this film, where people have jobs, not careers), but he has an avocation, a passionate hobby unsullied by filthy lucre: his 78 rpm record collection of pure blues music. All it takes is listening to his 1931 Skip James recording of “Devil Got My Woman” to hook Enid. Seymour fills her ideal of an uncompromised life, as she transforms his commitment to blues from pathetic geek characteristic to banner of permanent rebellion.
“Only stupid people have healthy relationships,” confides Enid. “That’s the spirit,” agrees Seymour. No good will come of this, to be sure, but like a satisfying journey, the road toward the messy tragedies at story’s end is strewn with pleasures. Not least among them is the character of Roberta (Illeana Douglas, in her best role since To Die For), the truly horrifying teacher of the “summer art class for retards” that Enid has to take to complete her high school requirements. Roberta introduces herself to the students by showing a fiercely feminist avant-garde video, then praises anything–however awful–backed by a feminist screed and disapproves of Enid’s cartoons, which were actually supplied by R. Crumb’s daughter Sophie from her own sketchbooks. Enid lampoons Roberta until, when encouraged even a little, she tries to court her favor in some of the film’s most poignant moments. (Dare I disclose her portrait of…Don Knotts?)
By the time Enid finally “gets on the bus,” Ghost World has plumbed its characters’ depths with a deep-sea diver’s precision and exploded the hypocritical balloon of social mobility and material success that is fast replacing ideals and principles in the age of Bush. Never underestimate a teenage girl’s ability to destroy everything in her path, even if that means screwing up her own life in the process. If teenagers are a society’s truest barometer, then Ghost World offers a rather worrisome forecast.
Along the way, though, Ghost World tips its hand more than a bit, despite Affonso Beato’s seductive camerawork, which has a way of making it all go down like a storybook. If middle-aged men hadn’t made this film, for example, would Enid really be so sympathetic to a loser like Seymour? Who, by the way, has the same 78 rpm obsession as director Zwigoff. Which, excuse me, we’re supposed to believe this hip outsider girl-child is so easily hooked on? And would feminism be a bad joke? Would LA suburbs be the seat of all evil, at a time when San Francisco was dot-comming and dot-bombing its way into the history books? And what’s up with the wheelchair jokes?
Still, Ghost World gets points for avoiding the calculated, prefab cynicism characteristic of overpraised films like American Beauty, on the one hand, and Happiness, on the other. We care about these characters and, despite themselves, they care for one another, too. Irony meets empathy here and both are better for it. Conservative compassion be damned.
Note: For another version of girl power in unexpected quarters, check out Legally Blonde. Sure, it’s improbable, what with being a Hollywood product showcasing Reese Witherspoon’s star power and all, but it’s got wit and even bite. The scenes of female bonding across class in the beauty parlor would be enough to make it worthwhile even if it weren’t the best empowerment movie for teenage girls to come along in ages.
Also worth catching are two fantastic films currently on screens around the country. Scott McGehee and David Siegal’s The Deep End is a sun-drenched noir that lets Tilda Swinton prove herself as an action hero–and a likely heroine for PFLAG in her efforts to clear her gay teenage son’s name and get him that scholarship to Wesleyan. And Lumumba is a historically astute and politically pointed history of what really happened in the Congo in its most tumultuous moment–as dramatized by erstwhile documentarian Raoul Peck, who experienced the African transition to independence firsthand and recently served as Haiti’s minister of culture.