Some movies create a fantasy world, a place where we can go for a few hours to escape our lives. But on rare occasions, film creates a world so close to reality that it is almost uncomfortable to watch.
“Ghost World” is one of those rare films. Based on a comic book of the same name by Daniel Clowes, the film evokes the French literary style of “tranche de vie” and depicts a slice of the life of two teenage girls, Enid (Thora Birch, “American Beauty”) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, “The Horse Whisperer”).
The two are best friends who have just graduated from high school and plan to live in an apartment together. Things begin to go awry, however, when Enid meets and befriends a social-outcast record collector, Seymour (Steve Buscemi, “Fargo”).
Whatever happy world “Ghost World” may depict at its beginning is systematically turned inside out and destroyed by the end. The film’s promotional tagline, “Accentuate the negative,” is no joke.
The emotions, frustrations and desires of the characters are so realistically presented that it is difficult not to feel a little bit like a voyeur while watching it all unfold. But it’s the film’s ability to capture teenage angst and serve it on a silver platter that makes “Ghost World” a beautiful achievement. There’s plenty of humor involved, though mostly of the pitch-black, smirk-inducing variety, with at least one scene that is guaranteed to make you squirm in your theater seat. The whole movie careens along to the point where you almost feel as if you are trapped in a car that is rolling down a hill. Needless to say this isn’t exactly a “feel-good movie.” But where there is sorrow, there is also hope, and that idea is one of the central themes of “Ghost World.”
Director Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb”) has captured all of this depth and breadth of human emotion with a breathtakingly beautiful stillness. While his characters run around frantically trying to find love and happiness as humans do, Zwigoff steps back and lets his lens drink in the whole bitter struggle.
Another fantastic aspect of the film is the dead-on depiction of characters that you wouldn’t be surprised to meet in real life. Birch is very engaging as eternal pessimist, Enid. Unfortunately, Johansson is weak as Rebecca. She mumbles through her lines with such a level of boredom that she shrinks into the background like a piece of scenery. But it’s the seasoned adult actors that steal the film. Buscemi is brilliant as the sad and desperate Seymour. Also, Illeana Douglas (“Stir of Echoes”) has a hilarious turn as a remedial-art teacher who is trying way too hard.
Overall, this film does not create a happy place in which to escape. Rather, it presents a story that may, at times, creep a little too close to familiarity. So take a deep breath and watch it all unfold. Just rest assured that you will be getting your money’s worth for the ticket, as “Ghost World” will haunt you long after you leave the theater.