Documentarian Terry Zwigoff, who directed the superlative Crumb, a highlight of American documentary cinema of the past decade, makes a rough transition into feature filmmaking with Ghost World, yet another tale of how the mediocrity of American suburbanism can almost suffocate the individuality of its few, truly creative denizens. Based on the popular and acclaimed underground comic book by Daniel Clowes, who co-wrote the script with Zwigoff, the film stars an excellent Thora Birch in a similar role to the one she played in the Oscar-winning American Beauty.
A cross between American Beauty and Welcome to the Dollhouse, Todd Solondz's terrific coming-of-age saga in suburban New Jersey, Ghost World is populated by a gallery of deviant, outsider characters that try to rise above their repressively stifling milieu. Thematically, there is not much new in this tale of two bright teenage girls (Birch and a wonderful Johansson), who are out of sync with the world around them.
Trying to find a place for themselves in a postmodern America that's defined by endless strip malls and fast-food chains, Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson) are more than simply bored, they're alienated. After graduating from high school, they face a frightening future: mundane, crappy jobs in local diners and slim prospects for romantic love or self-fulfillment. Rebecca, the more pragmatic one, gets a job at a local coffee franchise, which enables her to save money for an apartment to be shared with Enid.
In contrast, the pale and slightly chubby Enid is at a complete loss. Ferociously smart and relentlessly honest, she is the kind of girl who can't restrain her mouth, with uncensored commentary that spares no one. Through the personal ads, Enid becomes involved with an older, alienated malcontent, Seymour (Buscmei), who's initially unaware of her playing a trick on him.
Birch's role is very much a companion piece to her part as Jane, Kevin Spacey's discontented, rebellious daughter in American Beauty. An equally complex teenager, as in the far superior 1999 satire, Enid is a gloomy extrovert, clueless about her future plans (in the first scene, she informs her dad that she has decided not to go to college). Happiness and adaptation in this picture are a matter of degree, and Rebecca is slightly more adjusted than Enid, though just as lonesome. The two actress shine in their scenes together, demonstrating how, under some circumstances, even the best of friends can drift away.
The film's second part depicts Enid's uneasy relationship with Seymour, showing how a teenage girl can fall for an older man who's a big loser (Buscemi's screen specialty), yet admire him for sticking to his “freakish” identity and eccentric hobbies (jazz music, esoteric art work).
A number of secondary, offbeat characters bring much needed color to a tale that suffers from lack of energy, flat direction, and slow tempo that calls too much attention to the somber nature of its issues. Illeana Douglas is well cast as the local ex-hippie art teacher, who encourages her student to explore their inner selves with “mystical stuff,” and, once in a while succeeds, eventually bringing focus to Enid's life. The girls also make daily trips to a convenience store, where their teen crush, Josh (Renfro), works amid the burnouts for a demanding, always screaming boss.
The adult world is represented by routine characters, such as Enid's dad (Bob Balaban), who's unfortunately in the process of reconciling with his ex-wife Maxine (Teri Garr), much despised by Enid. And for a while, Seymour dates Dana (Travis), the original object of his furtive personal ad, who quickly becomes an object of ridicule.
As is often the case with comic books, the surface can be hilariously funny, but the subtext is grave and serious. Ultimately, Ghost World concerns the struggle of two idiosyncratic girls to maintain their identity and the very bond that has kept their sanity.