Lost in America

Keep your Lara Croft and your Shrek: For me, the summer's reigning icons are Enid, Thora Birch's geek goddess in Ghost World, and her action-movie analogue, the equally unreconciled and terminally weird tough guy that Takeshi Kitano plays in Brother. Disaffected teen and displaced yakuza, both are outsiders in America's great cultural crucible.

Directed with considerable empathy by Terry Zwigoff (best known for his documentary Crumb) from the comic book series by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World opens with a bang, presenting a frantic nightclub number from a 1965 Bollywood musical. The sequence is meant to sample 18-year-old Enid's outré taste, which seldom thereafter rises to such delirious heights. Still, with her purplish lipstick, horn-rimmed glasses, and blue Raptor T-shirt, Thora Birch has the look: Pushing her American Beauty suburban brat into a near definitive comic representation of adolescent attitudinizing, she's a chunky warrior with a purposeful stride somewhere between a march and a waddle.

Ghost World is suspended, like an unstable hammock, between high school graduation and the autumn of adult responsibility. Enid and her sidekick, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), are not going to college. They hang out in a faux '50s coffee shop, invent stories about the other patrons, watch TV, prank people who have placed personal ads, and visit their mutual crush, Josh (a once again inarticulate Brad Renfro), at his job behind the counter of a convenience store. Totally sarcastic but with a connoisseur's appreciation for nerdiness, they're a diffident duo. Their two-person rejection front is more programmatic here than in Clowes's uncanny original—an opposition to strip-mall homogenization culture is integral to Enid's teen quest for authenticity.

A connoisseur's appreciation for nerdiness: Birch in Ghost World
photo: Tracy Bennett
A connoisseur's appreciation for nerdiness: Birch in Ghost World

Details

Ghost World
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Written by Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, from the graphic novel by Clowes
United Artists
Opens July 20

Brother
Written and directed by Takeshi Kitano
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens July 20

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While the comic is largely and hilariously concerned with issues of "best friendness," Zwigoff's movie boldly focuses on Enid's engagement with the world—her honest inability to hold a job (most pointedly, selling popcorn at the local multiplex) and her ambiguous relationship with two adult mentors, neither of whom appears in the original comic. They are the hapless record maven Seymour (Steve Buscemi), like Zwigoff a collector of old 78's, and the pretentious art teacher Roberta (Illeana Douglas), with whom Enid is compelled to take a summer class. Zwigoff uses the grown-ups to work his own cranky sensibility into Enid's hermetic teenage universe. Seymour embodies the purity and despair of fans and collectors, while artsy Roberta is a defensive projection of high-culture authority.

Clearly, this mordant movie is not for the likes of her. Ghost World is itself an offhanded, visually self-effacing piece. Zwigoff's muted palette of primary colors and head-on symmetrical compositions seldom draw attention to themselves. The episodic action is largely performer-driven. But Zwigoff, who spent years documenting the irascible R. Crumb (and his no less singular family), proves to be an exceedingly sensitive director of actors. The 16-year-old Johansson is a self-possessed foil to the more mannered Birch, while such habitually broad performers as Buscemi and Douglas are as nuanced here as they've ever been.

In a manner befitting his stint as Crumb's Boswell, Zwigoff infuses Ghost World with old-fashioned underground comix consciousness in its swipes at dull normals and political correctness. Enid herself is a sort of natural cartoonist, forever sketching in her notebook. (If there's a Crumb-like flow to her line, it's because her drawings are by Crumb's own teenage daughter, Sophie.) Roberta initially disses Enid's cartoons, only belatedly recognizing her talent. Indeed, Enid is an artist so misunderstood that she doesn't yet realize that she is one. Seymour doesn't exactly appreciate Enid's work either; he's in the movie to be appreciated by her. Against all odds, the girl is blown away by his collection of old records and '30s memorabilia. "This is like my dream room," she burbles when permitted into his tchotchke-filled inner sanctum. "I would kill to have this stuff." ("So kill me" is Buscemi's delightful reply.)

In keeping with the movie's adversarial tone, Enid and Rebecca proudly identify "weirdos, sickies, and losers" as their people. Making this mass-cultural dialectic manifest, Ghost World establishes a universe of idealized, if sullen, teen girls and sympathetically ineffectual middle-aged men. (The only parent is Enid's timorous father, played for maximum harmlessness by Bob Balaban.) Explaining her fascination with Seymour to the unimpressed Rebecca, Enid argues that he's "such a clueless dork, he's almost cool." Enid sublimates her sexual curiosity into getting Seymour a date and, in one of the movie's funniest, most liberating scenes, pressures him into escorting her to an adult bookstore. The cornucopia of absurd sex toys is hopelessly overstimulating. "Omigod, look at all these creeps—this place is a total riot," she howls.

While Clowes's fascination with his creation is largely submerged, Zwigoff wears his on his sleeve. Enid is the greatest high school girlfriend a sensitive nerd could imagine. Over the course of the movie, various fantasies collide with unintended consequences. Ghost World is crammed with stuff—and not just because the collectibles have been selected for subtext. The movie is steeped in the pathos of adolescent bricolage. Enid discovers a blackface "Coon Chicken" poster among Seymour's relics and brings it to art class as a found object—thus allowing Zwigoff to introduce issues of censorship and stereotypes endemic to the cartoon universe. (His point is well-taken but awkwardly made. Enid has no idea—and never learns—why the image provokes a firestorm. Given that she's specifically represented as Jewish, it might have been more resonant to base her project on Nazi memorabilia or the anti-Semitic stereotype excised from Disney's Three Little Pigs.)

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