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Rebel Without A PauseTeen satire

Ghost World is frightfully good

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Joe Berlinger may have established himself as an important filmmaker with his widely praised documentaries Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, but he blew it when he made his fictional film debut with the heavily hyped, but ultimately numbing, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Terry Zwigoff has elected to tread more carefully: The man whose movie about cartoonist R. Crumb (Crumb) has been hailed as one of the best documentaries of modern times went decidedly small-scale with Ghost World, an adaptation of Daniel Clowes' underground comic book. In the long run, the very fact that the film's flying below the radar may work against it: Although it's probably destined for cult status, its art-house encapsulation may prevent it from achieving its proper due as a new generational touchstone for disaffected teens and young adults everywhere.

Certainly, the character that Zwigoff and Clowes place at the center of his razor-sharp satire is a familiar one to everybody who's ever set foot in a high school hallway. Enid (American Beauty's Thora Birch) is an outsider and flagrantly proud (perhaps too proud) of that fact. She wears her disdain for the civilized world on her sleeve, and she and her best friend, the more conventionally pretty Rebecca (The Horse Whisperer's Scarlett Johansson), spend most of their time not experiencing their own lives as much as wryly commenting on everyone else's. When a paraplegic classmate delivers a treacly, I'm OK, you're OK speech at graduation, Enid states that she liked the girl better before her car accident, when she was still an alcoholic and drug addict. And while assessing a party, she gasps, This is so bad, it's gone beyond good and back to bad again.

Whether individual moviegoers love or loathe this type of person in real life doesn't really matter, since it's Enid's universal vulnerability that ultimately wins us to her cause (like Alicia Silverstone's character in a 1995 hit, she's in many ways more clueless than she realizes). At first, Enid seems like a mirror image of the tart-tongued teen Christina Ricci played in 1998's The Opposite of Sex. But whereas that girl had ice in her veins, this one merely has a buzzing in her brain, a nagging sensation that somewhere, there's a place in the sun for even someone like herself. In that respect, she's no different than James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause or Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate -- good kids who want to move forward but whose failure to communicate perpetually keeps their lives in idle.

Something similar to a main plot materializes with the introduction of Seymour (Steve Buscemi in one of the defining roles of his career), a 40-something single guy whose sole passion seems to be collecting artifacts from past eras, specifically original 78 jazz and blues recordings from the 1920s. If anything, Seymour is even more anti-social than Enid (He's the opposite of everything I hate! she gushes), and as Rebecca begins to accept adult responsibilities and assimilates herself into the mainstream, Enid finds herself spending more time with her new friend. But Seymour isn't exactly happy with his sheltered existence, and once he starts to examine the possibility of a normal relationship with a pretty bank executive (Stacey Travis), the abandoned Enid finds herself arriving at a crossroad she never even knew was there.

Ghost World might be dismissed in some circles as condescending and self-important, but with dialogue this lacerating and characters this memorable, it's hard not to at least acknowledge the veracity of many of its circumstances, both major and minor. For example, as a film fan, I especially liked the scene in which a customer asks a video store clerk if they stock Fellini's 8-1/2; after inquiring whether that's a new release, the hapless clerk then searches on the store computer and declares, Oh, yes, we have it. 9-1/2 Weeks, starring Mickey Rourke. Who out there can't relate to that?

Ghost World has one of those wink-wink titles (like Eyes Wide Shut or Reservoir Dogs) that manages to seem meaningful and meaningless at the same time. Clowes has explained that the term (which he first saw scribbled on a graffiti wall) signifies many things to him, but as far as the film is concerned, it perfectly describes Enid's view of her surroundings -- a disturbing place where most people exhibit only whispers of their untapped potential, preferring instead to shuffle around malls and coffee shops in a state of ethereal anonymity. In such an environment -- one devoid of any inkling of self-awareness but keenly in tune with pop-culture crazes -- it's no wonder Enid views her own kind as free spirits in a material world.

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