After the success of his documentary about comic book artist Robert Crumb, Zwigoff turns again to the world of comics for his first fiction film, adapting Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Ghost World (Clowes cowrote the screenplay), which follows two directionless teenage girls (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) during the summer after their high school graduation.
The film mostly focuses on one of the girls, Birch's cynical yet idealistic Enid, as she wanders around her anonymous California suburb and negotiates life with her wimpy father (Bob Balaban), her pretentious art teacher (Illeana Douglas), the loser she secretly has a crush on (Brad Renfro), her prettier friend Rebecca (Johansson), who at least seems to have a future, and most especially with Seymour (Steve Buscemi, toning down his usual manic performance), a lonely oddball who collects old records – shades of Robert Crumb – and bonds with Enid over their shared outcast status.
I'll be frank: Ghost World has made me fall in love with Thora Birch. Or at least Thora Birch as Enid. Maybe it's her cute black bob (courtesy of the film's hair stylist Emjay Olson, who incidentally also did the hair for my film Foreign Correspondents), her chunky glasses or her luminous face, but I found it hard to take my eyes off her. The rest of the cast is well-picked (including Foreign Correspondents' Lorna Scott in another small role), but now I'm dying to read the comic. Clowes has a gift for skewering the world's phonies, and his bittersweet, self-aware outrage is evident in Enid's abundant rants. However, Hollywood actors don't often invest their performances with the entire histories that the writers invent for their characters, and so Ghost World is less complex, and certainly less malicious, than it could be. (An early line from their graduation party has Enid staring at an ill-matched teenage couple and muttering, "Hope she doesn't give him AIDS when he date-rapes her." Stingers like this could have permeated the film, but don't.)
That said, this is one of those not-great movies that I personally love, mainly because of Birch, but also because there's enough truth in it, and enough humor, that I felt a genuine sense of purpose in its making. In short, I wish I had directed it.