While several hundred graduating seniors yell and throw their mortar boards into the air, two girls skulk out of school. They take a moment to give their classmates a middle finger, and one of them drops her cap to the ground to stomp on it. "God," she says, "what a bunch of retards."
There’s never been a better look at high school malcontents than Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Based on Daniel Clowes’ comic book, but significantly expanded and improved upon, it tells the story of Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) in the summer after graduation. They’re struggling against the complacent lameness they see all around them – they’d rather nurse their grudges and pettiness than risk compromising their sense of cool. If Zwigoff’s last film, the masterful documentary Crumb, was a portrait of the artist as an old crank, Ghost World catches that moment when teen alienation starts to calcify into bitterness.
Enid is so mired in self-loathing that her every word is a vitriolic barb. She hides her vulnerability in a fog of superiority and condemnation: nothing is cool enough, nobody is hip enough for her. She can only engage the world through a prism of irony, so only the most gauche cultural artifacts – Indian twist records, faux ’50′s diners, black leather bondage masks – meet with her approval. She only likes things she can condescend to.
Rebecca is just as nasty, but we sense early on that she’s more able to accommodate herself to the demands of the world. Her hostility is tied up with their friendship; Enid is such a creature of spite that Rebecca has notched up her own aggression in a show of camaraderie. Once school ends and people start to head off to college (the girls have decided that college is beneath them and plan on sharing an apartment once they find jobs), she’s much quicker to see that staying on to trash your old high school enemies is more than a little pathetic.
Clowes’ comic book version was claustrophobic and unsettling. It never strayed far from Enid’s perspective, and the stark graphic style (monochrome caricatures washed with pale turquoise highlights) gave the savage jokes a mournful undertow. Zwigoff has opened it up considerably, clarifying the narrative line and punching up the humor. Better yet, he’s added a new character that allows him to expand on themes from Crumb. Steve Buscemi’s Seymour is a dour loser, a middle-aged record collector with no social skills and no romantic prospects. He’s Enid in twenty years (or Robert Crumb if he hadn’t become famous), so alienated – "I can’t relate to 99% of humanity," he says – that he’s substituted his record collection for the relationships he’s too inept to maintain.
Seymour and Enid become friends after he sells her an old blues record that cuts through her miasma of kitschy post-modern angst. She actually connects to something real, something she can’t distance herself from with contemptuous laughter. It’s a relationship that’s bound to fail – he’s harboring a crush, and she’s using him to put off finding a job and settling in with Rebecca – but Seymour’s adult concerns allow Zwigoff to put the adolescent struggles into perspective.
In other hands this material might be nothing but condescension and easy laughs. (At its weakest, in two scenes at a Mini-mart, Zwigoff introduces a mullet-headed redneck who tilts the film dangerously in that direction.) But Zwigoff has a deep affinity for people who are too smart to accept the world and too cynical (or reticent) to try to change it, and his performers keep the film from slipping into parody.
It may be Buscemi’s best performance. His Seymour is fully aware that he’s a dork, but he’s too strong-willed to make the small changes (a haircut, clothes that fit) that would let him fit in. He’s accepted his lot in life and retreated to a complicated nostalgia: he mourns the loss of a quieter world that respected craftsmanship and blues singers while knowing full well that everyday life is better today. Buscemi conveys all this in beautifully timed reactions to Enid. She is so flippantly caustic that he sees himself in her, and wants to save her while she can still be saved.
Birch is even better than she was in American Beauty, in which she distilled teenaged boredom and disgust into a few precise, iconic gestures. Enid is more complicated. From her wardrobe – ugly thrift store finds worn with implicit air quotes – to her endless barrage of insults, her personality is a defense, an attempt to keep everyone, and especially herself, away from the pain that drives her. As she lurches out of childhood, her defenses are beginning to fail her, and Birch negotiates her increasing inability to cope perfectly.
Though he’s only made three films in sixteen years, Zwigoff is a major director. Crumb was arguably the best American film of the 1990′s. Ghost World isn’t as good as that – its tone wavers here and there, and the ending loses some of the mysterious gravity of the comic book – but it’s a remarkable piece of work nonetheless. It’s well worth the six year wait. With luck, the next film will arrive sooner.