17 January 2002 | Movie-12
For those of us who tire of standard teen movies, here's the film to make our day. **** (out of four)
GHOST WORLD / (2001) **** (out of four)
For those of us who tire of standard teen movies, here's the film to brighten our day. It's a monkey wrench in the cranks of the tedious genre that features actors in their mid-twenties portraying stereotypical high-school characters shamelessly indulging predictable plots of frivolous romance. Where most movies set in high schools find resolve in romantics, "Ghost World" dares to be different.
Yet it contains all the usual ingredients-aimless main characters, one-dimensional side characters, high school graduation, moronic parents, sexual revelations, a romance-but it tastes different. This movie doesn't believe high school is the root of youth complications; it knows that school isn't where the confusion lies-it's after graduation when the complexities begin.
The movie opens as a high school senior dances along with a music video. Sounds like a typical teenager? Well, not really. The music this girl listens to isn't exactly mainstream. Nothing about Enid (Thora Birch from "American Beauty") is ordinary.
The same goes for her best friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). She is slightly more focused than the aimless Enid, but, as they graduate from high school in the opening scenes, neither of them know what they want out of life.
Rebecca and Enid find interesting people to follow, exploit, and embarrass, just for their own leisure, but even this loses its edge. Making the most (or least) of their situation, the girls stumble upon an outstandingly pathetic personal ad. As a joke, they respond. However, when they meet this man, Enid becomes infatuated with him.
In their post high school days, Enid and Rebecca find themselves slowly drifting apart. Rebecca is eager to get an apartment and get on with her life, while Enid lives by the day, following one infatuation after another. As their attitudes gradually change from cynical to sober, Enid and Rebecca's emerging differences become blatantly obvious, but painfully realized.
"Ghost World" refers to the world in which these characters live, a town slowly being overcome by shopping malls and coffee shops; a town that slowly loses its distinctions and becomes a ghost of what it once was.
My small town of Mason, MI speaks for itself. Once a minuscule farming suburb of the state's capital, it's now a breeding ground for new subdivisions, factories, stores, gas stations, trailer parks, and businesses. Before you know it, it will be a densely populated city like the capital itself.
"Ghost World" makes harsh points, but it never loses its sense of humor. Enid is so full of bitter cynicism that we have to laugh. She indulges the dialogue. It's often tactlessly frank, savoring every opportunity to bash, thrash, ridicule, or insult anyone or anything for any reason.
Society tends to repress our caustic desire to insult a fellow man, but "Ghost World" doesn't hesitate. It takes a lot of risks, but never steps in the wrong direction. It connects us with these characters. They are so casually antisocial that we can't help but to love them. At times, the movie doesn't require dialogue. It simply examines the character's surroundings. We get to know these people so well, we know exactly what they're thinking before they say it. They are a part of our instincts to react on impulse.
But a character is only as good as the actor behind it. "Ghost World" features enormously engaging performances. Brad Renfro gives his nobody store clerk a raw blandness. Illeana Douglas injects a kind of controlled eccentricity into her role as an art teacher. Steve Buscemi creates a hopeless record player collector out of repressed emotion, and lack thereof.
Scarlett Johansson gives Rebecca a dry, depressed mood. Thora Birch steals the whole show with a straightforward, fearless performance. Although the movie never defines the relationship between Enid and Rebecca, the actors themselves make it clear. They create an enticing charisma that gradually turns to an awkward tension.
"Ghost World" captures part of our journey from childhood to adulthood with poetic grace and cynical wit. Though it's not really a coming-of-age film, where a young character finally takes a place in the world. Enid never finds her place, decides her future, or chooses a path. By the end of the story, she simply becomes aware of her possible options. This movie is just the beginning of her story.