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News » Film & TV

Alienation Nation

Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World takes post-adolescent angst to new cerebral heights.



Fair warning: You may not be cool enough to appreciate Ghost World.

That’s because you might be one of the ghosts—those faceless, nameless, passionless people who so vex Enid and Rebecca, our post-adolescent heroines in this new film from director Terry Zwigoff.

Our girls prowl the mini-malls, theme restaurants and garage sales of their suburban lives, looking for something real in a profoundly artificial world while making fun of everything they don’t like. With no words or actions capable of expressing the displacement they feel, they turn everything they see into an opportunity for bitter sarcasm or cruel humor.

All this hostility is masking something, of course. Ghost World is not the first movie that feels like one big long therapy session between the filmmakers and the audience, but it might be one of the best.

Zwigoff, a San Francisco documentarian, also helped write this cerebral, clever film based on co-writer Daniel Clowe’s graphic novel. Crumb, Zwigoff’s much-praised film about cartoonist R. Crumb, was a revelatory map of life’s roads less traveled. In his new film, Zwigoff sticks with that theme, but he takes it in an appropriately strange direction.

It’s not that misfits and outcasts have ever lacked outlets for artistic expression. After all, freaks, geeks and iconoclasts have been responsible for most of the world’s great entertainment. But recently, there’s been a steady stream of divergent programming made by the alienated for the marginalized, or at least those who consciously style themselves as such.

This hip, permanently ironic disaffection with every single thing in your white-bread world is part of our cultural shorthand now. As you might remember from your teenage years, being on the outside is the only place to be, whether you’re a filmmaker, a TV producer or a musician. Enid and Rebecca are plugged into that vibe, but they can’t figure out where it’s taking them.

Thora Birch (American Beauty) is Enid, a profoundly disaffected, sarcastic, reflexively mean teen trying to survive in suburbia. Scarlett Johansson is Rebecca, her sister in recreational cruelty. They’re out of high school, but they’re proudly not doing anything with themselves—until Rebecca gets a job at a coffee house, and Enid realizes her life is about to change.

Ghost World’s profoundly pessimistic viewpoint is nothing revolutionary, but the film excels by charting new directions. There’s much to love about the tenuous relationship between Enid and Seymour (Steve Buscemi, made for the part), an older, introverted record collector (based partly on Zwigoff himself) who’s “the exact opposite of everything I hate,” Enid tells Rebecca. Illeana Douglas also has a compelling comic role as a politically correct art teacher who doesn’t understand Enid’s strange cartoons.

But Ghost World’s greatest achievement—a masterfully drawn portrait of alienation—also leads to its biggest fault. When the smart, somewhat remote script is paired with Zwigoff’s compelling but aloof direction, the film develops an air of inaccessibility that dampens the fun. Somewhat like director Todd Solondz, Zwigoff isn’t interested in bending his vision to show he has a heart, or even that he knows a heart exists. That’s fine, but it also gives a smug, self-satisfied air to much of the film’s second half.

Essentially, Ghost World is a movie about making fun of things. It lampoons the highbrow, specialized entertainment favored by people who basically think they’re better than everybody else. Of course, that’s also exactly what Ghost World is.

Most people will see something of themselves in Enid or Rebecca, but we get the overwhelming feeling that Zwigoff couldn’t care less. He made a heartbreakingly personal film to express the disconnection and helplessness he feels inside his own mind. If everybody else is clued in to his particular sense of ennui, that’s just one more layer of irony you’re probably not cool enough to understand.

Ghost World (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi.