Ghost World

While the origins of Ghost World lie with a popular underground comic (er graphic novel), there is nothing cartoonish about this film

There seems to be a new trend with independent films. It appears to be a backlash against the insipid teen films all too prevalent with theaters today. This new trend encompasses movies that, although they are primary concerned with teenagers, present themselves with a balance of serious drama, wit and comic relief. At the vanguard of such films is without a doubt Ghost World.

While the origins of Ghost World lie with a popular underground comic (er graphic novel), there is nothing cartoonish about Ghost World. The plot follows two girls Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) as they leave high school behind and drift into adulthood. Both girls, particularly Enid, are the type of person that does not have to ‘be cool’. They see themselves as cool, intelligent and in many ways above their peers. This being said, they don’t come off as stuck up, rather they have an internal confidence in spite of some underlying insecurities. Rebecca is trying to get on with her life. She has gotten a meaningless job in a coffee house and has gotten used to boys and men always hitting in her. Enid on the other hand is beginning to feel left behind. She still rebels against the ever-present pseudo intellectual people that populate the world. Bored and possessing no certain plans the girls read a personal ad where a man is desperate to meet with a young woman he passed awhile ago. The girls call the man, Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and watch as his hopes are dashed when the girl does not show. Enid is interested in how this man lives and they follow him to his apartment. In turn Enid goes to a weekly swap meet where Seymour sells old records. She buys an old delta blues album and finds herself enthralled with it. A friendship develops with Seymour as the one with Rebecca drifts apart. Enid is determined to find Seymour a woman. It appears that by curing his loneliness can somehow help her cope with her own.

While watching Ghost World I found certain scenes difficult because they made me feel awkward. They reminded me of my own teen years with the many awkward moments we try so hard to suppress. Now, with some thirty plus years separating those events I was able to actually enjoy these moments that are presented on the screen. An excellent film should bring up a plethora of emotions and Ghost World exceeds at this lofty goal.

Thora Birch is excellent in Ghost World. At times it is almost an extension of her role in American Beauty. She is the young girl who feels out of place with almost everyone, her best friend being prettier than her and getting all the male attention, yet possessing the intelligence and wit to overcome this and grow as an individual. Birch has made the transition from child actress to young adult far better than most. She lives in her role, creating a character that the audience has to feel for. In a few scenes her expletive laced language shocks poor Seymour but there the words are not used for shock value but demonstrates how the differences in vocabulary mirrors the differences in their lives. It is the acting of Ms Birch that makes it so believable that these two can for a deep friendship. Your mind never drifts to the over used older man/younger woman trap that any mainstream teen movie would impose on the audience. In many ways her performance here reminded me of Adrienne Shelly in Hal Hartley’s classic ‘Trust’. Two incomplete people that find a link with each other that manages to complete the both of them.

As always Buscemi shines in his role as Seymour. This actor has two distinct careers, one as a mainstream character actor, and the other as an independent leading man. While he succeeds in both worlds I have always enjoyed his Indy roles more. With these films this actor has a much better setting to display his talent. Here, his Seymour is on the face pathetic but there is depth to his character. Much like his role in his own ‘Trees Lounge’ he shows a man that is living a quiet life of desperation that finds everything around him changing. Illeana Douglas plays one notable secondary character. She is Roberta, the teacher of Enid’s remedial summer art class. She is politically correct to the nth degree. A pseudo free sprit that cares less about art than the ‘statement’ it should make. In all the cast here is wonderful.

Terry Zwigoff directed this tale of everyday life. He is not a well-known’ director, titles like ‘Crumb’ a biography of the hippy cartoonist R. Crumb, and ‘Louie Bluie’ a documentary about a blues singer. Like Seymour Zwigoff is into blues, old records and this shows in his understanding of his characters. Zwigoff co-wrote Ghost World with the creator of the comic, Daniel Clowes. Together the two nail the story making it compelling and interesting. Zwigloff’s style as a director is not as straightforward as it may appear in the first viewing. Watch Ghost World over a few times and the little details will start to hit you. An infection here or prop there but the synergy they provide the film will add to your experience.

The Ghost World DVD is excellent. The Dolby 5.1 sound is well mixed and provides a rich sound field. The rear speakers are mostly for ambience and the sub woofer is present bu never overwhelming. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is crisp and clear. The color balance is near perfect, no artsy pushes of the color to create mood, here the emotional tone is set by the excellent cast and writing. The extras would have been better with a commentary track but nothing is perfect. What you do get is some deleted scenes and a making of documentary.

Ghost World is a movie that succeeds because of its flaws. It shows life in a realistic but not overpowering fashion. Whether you are going through the angst shown here or, like me, look back over the decades at it, Ghost World will touch you on a real level.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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