[Screen It]

(2001) (Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi) (R)

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Comedy/Drama: Two disillusioned teens try to figure out their place in the world after graduating from high school.
Enid (THORA BIRCH) and her best friend Rebecca (SCARLETT JOHANSSON) are two disillusioned and sarcastic teens who've just graduated from high school and have no idea what they're going to be, or are supposed to do next. Hanging around a diner where the two observe and comment on others, the girls hope to get an apartment together, and enjoy irritating the boy of their dreams, Josh (BRAD RENFRO), where he works as a convenience store clerk.

Enid's home life doesn't provide her with much encouragement, as she and her dad (BOB BALABAN) don't really communicate that well, and she's not happy that Maxine (TERI GARR), her ex-stepmother, is back on the scene. Things get worse when she learns that she must attend summer school and take an art class taught by Roberta (ILLEANA DOUGLAS), to graduate, although the teacher does get her thinking about ways to better express herself through her artistic skills.

It's when Enid pulls a prank by answering a classified ad placed by Seymour (STEVE BUSCEMI), a lowly, middle-aged collector of 78 rpm recordings who's looking for a woman he earlier spotted, however, that the teen believes she's found a kindred spirit. Although she doesn't let on about her misleading him, Enid soon befriends Seymour and sets out to find him a woman who will love him for who and what he is.

After he eventually starts seeing Dana (STACEY TRAVIS) and Rebecca becomes fed up with the time she spends on him and not her, Enid soon realizes that the few friendships in her life are beginning to show strain. From that point on, and as she strives to remedy that, Enid continues trying to find her place in the world.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
As most anyone will tell you after the fact and as long as it doesn't involve death or tragedy, change is good. Although any such transition from one state or condition to another may be traumatic at the time it occurs, it's usually beneficial as it allows or forces people to grow and escape or abandon their stagnant lifestyles.

Change is also good in movies. After all, who wants to watch a film where the characters go through the same old routine, day in and day out? That would obviously be rather boring to behold and is the reason why so many cinematic stories start with some sort of change in the protagonist's life that thus generates internal and/or external conflict they must then overcome.

One of the biggest changes that anyone - movie based or real - must face is graduating from high school or college. That's because going from a usually sheltered, routine-filled existence out into the big, scary world requires a certain commitment to growing up and finding one's place in life.

That's the fun gist of "Ghost World," an insightful, sharply written and generally amusing and poignant tale of a disillusioned teenager trying to do just that after high school. Films set in or after high school are a dime a dozen nowadays, and unless they have their own distinctive voice and view of the world, they pretty much all blend together.

Thankfully, that's not the case with this picture that's based on Daniel Clowes' graphic comic book of the same name. As written by Clowes and co-writer/director Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb"), the film is terrifically refreshing in its take on the post high school graduate teen mindset. While the attitudes and behavior of its central characters aren't meant to be indicative of everyone who falls into that grouping, and the adult subject matter and language will turn off some viewers, those who favor sharp writing, marvelous performances and a unique yarn to spin, this film will be right up your alley.

Of course, for such a film to work, not only must the efforts behind the camera be on top of the ball at all times, but the performances must be topnotch as well. That's where "Ghost World" excels. Thankfully returning to the quality work she displayed in "American Beauty" after appearing in the disappointing "Dungeons & Dragons," Thora Birch delivers what's easily the best performance of her career.

While some of the praise should obviously go to the screenwriters for putting such witty, sarcastic and even touching words in her mouth and thoughts in her character's head, Birch takes the character and runs with it, creating a completely fascinating and intriguing teen persona that feels real. Whether delivering her character's sarcastic, observational attitudes about others, briefly working at a movie theater concession stand (in the film's funniest scene) or realizing she's screwed up her life, Birch creates such a refreshingly indelible character that you simply won't be able to take your eyes or ears off her.

Such cinematic creations obviously need other characters to play off, and Birch benefits from the terrific performances from her costars. Scarlett Johansson ("The Horse Whisperer," "Home Alone 3") is also quite good as Enid's best friend who shares a similar outlook on life and people, but begins to drift away from her over the course of the summer.

The real standout, however, is Steve Buscemi ("28 Days," "Armageddon") as an older, sad sack type fellow who gets by in life, sometimes bemoaning his lonely state, and at others simply accepting it. It's a marvelous performance and the talented actor puts a great deal of heart and soul into bringing his character to life.

Supporting performances from the likes of Bob Balaban ("Best In Show," "The Mexican") as Enid's dad, Illeana Douglas ("Cape Fear," "To Die For") as her summer school art teacher, and Brad Renfro ("Apt Pupil," "The Client") as an overworked and unhappy convenience store clerk are all fine, with each of their characters being present as small cogs and puzzle pieces for the protagonist to examine and determine where they fit in her life.

Most of their interplay and exchanges with Birch's character are fabulous, particularly when the filmmakers so effectively mix observation with sarcasm and humor with sadness. The title reportedly refers to both the death of former relationships and uniqueness in today's franchised world, and the film manages to be both poignant and funny in looking at such matters, a point that's welcomed in this reviewer's book.

Something like a natural, chronological progression from the equally quirky "Welcome to the Dollhouse," this film has that same sort of spunky, offbeat and contagious feel to it, along with all sorts of odd and amusing bits tucked throughout the proceedings. From the opening credits sequence, where an incredibly catchy tune from long ago plays, the film had me hooked and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish.

While more amusing than outright hilarious and certainly not for all viewers, "Ghost World" is a breath of fresh air in a mostly stale cinematic world where filmmakers might take financial chances, but usually not artistic risks. Those associated with this film do just that, resulting in a marvelous little picture teaming with terrific writing and performances, and a unique look at the human condition. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 20, 2001 / Posted August 3, 2001

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