Antithesis, synthesis, anticlimax

Ghost World, simply put, is the antithesis of modern teen comedy.

First, as a matter of explanation, what is modern teen comedy? Movies strongly tend to be demographic-driven formulas anyway. The teen market is so important to the industry, and the formulas therefore been layered over many, many years, we're easily deceived that any particular film seems to have some originality.

The typical teen comedy has popular kids, and kids who are on the outside. There's usually some element of learning the world isn't as black and white as everyone thinks. We also are told that parents and adults may know the answers, but the kids are in no hurry to start listening to them. There's usually a large gathering which culminates the movie - a school dance, or a wild kegger, or occasionally something with a hint of creativity.

Ghost World centers on two "outsider" girls - Enid and Rebecca - who are surprisingly comfortable in their own skin. They spend their time being largely unimpressed by their surroundings and making snide comments on everything they don't relate to, as a means of breaking the monotony. They leave high school graduation with little more than vague plans to get jobs and find an apartment together.

Enid - the true protagonist of the story - learns she has to take an art class in summer school to actually graduate. While Rebecca works toward their shared goals, Enid has a more self-defeating nature. The film explores the slight differences between these two girls with very similar outlooks. Ultimately, Enid refuses to sacrifice herself to fit into the world, while Rebecca slides into adult responsibilities without batting an eye.

The script is slow and dreadfully subtle, misdirecting us with the girls' quirky humor when something important is happening. It chooses not to dwell on things the average teen comedy would, because, in fact, most teens want to put the uncomfortable issues behind them, rather than deal with them.

Stylistically, Ghost World has a bit in common with the deadpan directing style of Mamet - we could be looking at the awkward, unhappy childhood of State and Main here. The speech of the characters default to something not far from a monotone, with each display of emotion appearing as a sudden hemorrhaging of self-control.

This film is more formalistic than it pretends to be, which leads to its biggest flaw. On the surface, the culminating moment of the film comes as a shock and easily feels like just another non-sequitor or a cop out to finally bring things to an end. We have been given some pretty overt cues that what happens is coming. Yet, what unfolds does not really match up at the plot level, which is awfully hard for an audience to swallow - it was for me, even after a few viewing and having a sense of what was being done. Perhaps this would be more clear in the comic version of Ghost World.

Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson are perfect as joyfully disaffected teenagers. Steve Buscemi in particular holds his own as the music loving unwillingly-confirmed bachelor befriended by Birch. The supporting cast does a marvelous job playing people who are set in their ways and look at the world through inflexibly particular viewpoints. Even Teri Garr is decent in a small role, holding back her performance over how we usually see her, which usually feels so over the top (see Dick).

The DVD comes with the 1965 music video of "Jan Pehechaan Ho" from Gumnaam - well before they called such things "music videos". This is the freaky timeslice-of-an-era that starts Ghost World and could be reason enough for some people to get this disc. I would have been curious to listen to a commentary track on the DVD, but perhaps the thinking was that the film moves too slow for there to be enough to comment on - I don't know that I'd agree, but somebody might have had that thought. And I do have to say the title page is annoying if you have to stay on it for very long. Putting clips of the movie in sections of the screen might be slightly clever DVD sportsmanship, but doesn't really advertise the film well after the first few repeats.

Ghost World is a wonderful little package of subtle insight, which is marred by a certain inaccessibility - the public at large will have a hard time accepting what they see, and the oddly surreal - but similarly unemotional - ending does nothing to help retain the audience. In a way, it's refreshing, because these girls have no interest in being someone else's escapist entertainment. If that makes the movie harder to relate to, so be it. We can't always pander to every imagined whim of the audience.

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