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Written by Daniel Clowes
Starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Illeana Douglas,
Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Who's the dork?
The kids who think school sucks and life sucks or the guy with an obsession about Blind Lemon Shandy and other blues recording artists on 78 rpm

The answer in Ghost World is that well, everything pretty much sucks and in small suburb, big town America there is very little to be happy about. Most 'teen' movies celebrate stupidity or obsessions with being cool or sex or appearance. These are the main priorities of teens world over. For teens who are not cool, or sexually active or even good looking, real life and the future it promises look truly appalling. Seeing the uncool chick transformed into a swan in 'Ten things I hate about you' only reinforce the inadequacies. From the Scream series, to 'American Pie 2' everything comes down to how you look, how you fit in, become part of the team. You are a loser unless you become 'one of them' and in fact teen movies are beginning to look like episodes of 'The Invaders' (for the uninitiated it concerned a fugitive architect who knew everyone was slowly being replaced by aliens but no one could tell but him).

The better kind of teen movie that makes something of an impression has a stronger, more ironic message. Some are pretty good films too. 'Final Destination' is one such where kids last minute get off a flight that is doomed to crash and then after it crashes death comes for them one after the other. Other teen movies such as 'Go' capture the downside of young adult life in the USA. For many it is utterly crap, where high school graduates who chose not to do a degree, get trapped in service jobs that have no future, have no soul and they can see that everything they do or will do sucks. Go deals with drugs, clubs, accidental death and consequences, it has a great soundtrack and works effectively in it's genre. Of course there are the sexy violent ones too, 'Wild Things' a wonderful example and a treat to watch.

What makes Ghost World work so well is that no one is trying to be cool. The protagonists, Rebecca and Enid, long ago decided that it was no contest. School was just a long suckfest, so it remains a survival tool to mock those who succeed, look good, do well, or suck even more than you do.
Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson are wonderful as a bitchy pair who just know that they have survived the first big ordeal of their lives, school, and now have to square up to a life that may be worse. Their safety is their sense of irony and skilled sarcasm, equally it is their Achilles heel.

Rebecca, played by Scarlett Johansson has her head more screwed on and faces up to the fact that they have to get jobs if they are going to be able to pay for the apartment they want to share. Enid, played by Thora Birch is reluctant to join the world she has mocked for so long. She has problems relating to her father and his choice of girlfriend, she has problems with capitulating.

Steven Buscemi enters the film, first as someone to be mocked for his obsession with 78s (records before vinyl) and somehow he becomes Enid's new friend, finally boyfriend. It's unlikely and might even be uncomfortable for some, but Enid cannot relate to her own generation of boys, has a genuine interest in trying to make Seymour (Steven Buscemi) happy, but realises that by pushing him into a relationship with someone who does not truly share his interests she is betraying him and her own interests. Rebecca, of course,thinks Seymour a total loser, but to Enid, Seymour has a genuine passion for something, he is one of the few real people she has ever met. Yet Seymour is her, twenty years on, trapped by his weird collections and weird friends and secretly longs to be normal. Enid may not sense this, but he, by being the outsider all his life, will be her unless she can adapt or embrace the shallowness of 'normal' life.

Enid is quite talented with her art, sketching pithy portraits of the people around her demonstrates that. But in her summer remedial art classes with the pretentious teacher played with wonderful superficiality by Illeana Douglas (Grace of my heart) she learns a vital lesson in compromising. Taking a 'found' image from Seymour's apartment and cleverly turning it against the teacher. But here too, the result is bittersweet. The unfortunate and 'racist' advertisement for Chicken fast-food causes upset and although Enid was offered a scholarship to college because of it, she loses the place and what is worse is failed in her art class. Enid's cynicism about the world is self-fulfilling in other words.

Ghost World is a complex film, dry and amusing rather than funny. It is tragic, observant and at the beginning deliciously bitchy, but it cannot remain so, because this is a film about life-long friends beginning to realise they are finally diverging. Enid in her wish to have a better more meaningful life betrays herself. Seymour in his foolishness in getting involved with her loses mostly everything. Only Rebecca has seen the light and closed the door on the past.

Ghost World is remarkable for another reason, it is in part a British movie. Granada put up the cash and it is their first film made entirely in the USA with a US cast. It has mainly favorable reviews and it has already garnered a cult following. For those sated by Harry Potter, Ghost World is a useful and illuminating antidote.

© Sam North 2001

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