Dir: Terry Zwigoff. US.2001. 111 min.

Documentarian Terry Zwigoff,who directed the superlative Crumb,a highlight of American documentary cinema of the past decade, makes a roughtransition into feature filmmaking with Ghost World, yet another tale of how the mediocrity of Americansuburbanism can almost suffocate the individuality of its few, truly creativedenizens. Based on the popular and acclaimed underground comic book by DanielClowes, who co-wrote the script with Zwigoff, the film stars an excellent ThoraBirch in a similar role to the one she played in the Oscar-winning AmericanBeauty. Though well-acted, in itscurrent, bland shape and deliberate pacing, Ghost World is very much a writer's picture. Over-praised bysome critics when it premiered at the Seattle Festival, this is a studio-made,indie-in-spirit movie whose mediocre business will be largely confined to theart-house circuit and urban centres.

A cross between AmericanBeauty and Welcome To The Dollhouse, Todd Solondz's terrific coming-of-age saga insuburban New Jersey, Ghost Worldis populated by a gallery of deviant, outsider characters that try to riseabove their repressively stifling milieu. Thematically, there is not much newin this tale of two bright teenage girls (Birch and a wonderful Johansson, pictured above), who are out of sync with the world around them.

Trying to find a place forthemselves in a postmodern America that's defined by endless strip malls andfast-food chains, Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson) are more than simplybored; they're alienated. After graduating from high school, they face afrightening future: mundane, crappy jobs in local diners and slim prospects forromantic love or self-fulfillment. Rebecca, the more pragmatic one, gets a jobat a local coffee franchise, which enables her to save money for an apartmentto be shared with Enid. In contrast, the pale and slightly chubby Enid is at acomplete loss. Ferociously smart and relentlessly honest, she is the kind ofgirl who can't restrain her mouth, with uncensored commentary that spares noone. Through the personal ads, Enid becomes involved with an older, alienatedmalcontent, Seymour (Buscemi), who's initially unaware of her playing a trickon him.

Birch's role is very much acompanion piece to her part as Jane, Kevin Spacey's discontented, rebelliousdaughter in American Beauty. Anequally complex teenager, as in the far superior 1999 satire, Enid is a gloomyextrovert, clueless about her future plans (in the first scene, she informs herdad that she has decided not to go to college). Happiness and adaptation inthis picture are a matter of degree, and Rebecca is slightly more adjusted thanEnid, though just as lonesome. The two actresses shine in their scenestogether, demonstrating how, under some circumstances, even the best of friendscan drift away.

The film's second -- andweaker -- part depicts Enid's uneasy relationship with Seymour, showing how ateenage girl can fall for an older man who's a big loser (Buscemi's screenspecialty), yet admire him for sticking to his "freakish" identityand eccentric hobbies (jazz music, esoteric art work).

A number of secondary,offbeat characters bring much needed colour to a tale that suffers from lack ofenergy, flat direction, and slow tempo that calls too much attention to thesombre nature of its issues. Illeana Douglas is well cast as the localex-hippie art teacher who encourages her student to explore their inner selveswith "mystical stuff," and, once in a while succeeds, eventuallybringing focus to Enid's life. The girls also make daily trips to aconvenience store, where their teen crush, Josh (Renfro), works amid theburnouts for a demanding, always-screaming boss.

Other than that, the adultworld is represented by routine characters, such as Enid's dad (Balaban), who'sunfortunately in the process of reconciling with his ex-wife Maxine (Garr),much despised by Enid. And for a while, Seymour dates Dana (Travis), theoriginal object of his furtive personal ad, who quickly becomes an object ofridicule.

As is often the case withcomic books, the surface can be hilariously funny, but the subtext is grave andserious. Ultimately, Ghost Worldconcerns the struggle of two idiosyncratic girls to maintain their identity andthe very bond that has kept their sanity

Prod cos: A United Artist/Granada Film production, in associationwith Jersey Shore.
US dist
Int'l dist
: Capitol Films
Exec prods
: Pippa Cross,Janette Day
: Lianne Halfon, JohnMalkovich, Russell Smith
: Daniel Clowes andZwigoff, based on Clowes' comic book
: Affonso Beato
: CaroleKravetz-Aykanian, Michael R. Miller
: David Kittay
Main cast
: Thora Birch,Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Stacey Travis,Bob Balaban, Teri Garr