MGM has a real winner on its hands with this offbeat slice of summer counterprogramming. By sharp turns poignant, disturbing and hysterically funny, “Ghost World” explores the weird interstices between girlhood and adult life with an acuity unexpected from two middle-aged guys, let alone such proud oddballs as “Crumb” director Terry Zwigoff, making a wildly successful leap into featuredom, and artist-writer Daniel Clowes, on whose underground comics much of this is based. Alternative pedigree could help attract young auds of both sexes, and older viewers, if reached, will appreciate the pic’s measured tones and obvious love for vintage music, art and manners. Film will enter limited theatrical release July 20.
Presence of indie stalwart Steve Buscemi, in one of his subtlest performances, will help, as will a star-making turn for former child star Thora Birch, who won a best actress award in Seattle after pic world-preemed there.
Birch, moving miles from her suburban mouse in “American Beauty,” has donned a black pageboy and packed on some pounds to play Enid, the sharp-tongued, almost giddily joyless narrator of Clowes’ funny book “World,” only ghostly in its suggestion of mysteries that always remain beyond the grasp of his disaffected adolescents. Just out of high school, Enid has vague plans to move away from home and into a starter apartment with best bud Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson).
Slightly jealous of her pretty blonde pal, our bespectacled post-Goth heroine keeps bailing on the search for a new pad, although she’s clearly sick of living with her meek dad (Bob Balaban, in another of his superbly modulated outings). Adding to the tension between the girls is their mutual ardor for Josh (Brad Renfro), a blandly handsome schoolmate without much evident interest in either of them. (This aspect of the situation, uncharacteristically for the movie, is rather more muted than it is in the comic.)
Throwing things out of whack, and eventually into focus, is Enid’s chance encounter with Buscemi’s Seymour, a sad-sack record collector — an amalgam of Zwigoff himself and various Crumb brothers.
Rebecca is revolted by this fortysomething nerd. But Enid, shocked to discover someone not steeped in “whatever”-brand cynicism or do-gooder self-congratulation, befriends the self-deprecating outcast and makes it her mission to help him find his footing with women.
That’s about it for plot. There’s plenty going on in the script, though, given the caustic, sharp-eyed deconstruction of large and small societies around the girls (replete with pop-culture put-downs of all kinds). Broader humor is provided by the supporting players, most vividly by Illeana Douglas as an overly PC art teacher, Teri Garr as a mildly scary love interest for Enid’s dad and Brian George as Josh’s perpetually angry boss.
Pic’s most obvious nod to non-superhero cartoon status is its complete disdain for fancy camerawork. Helmer favors large compositions and static two-shots, courtesy of Almodovar lenser Affonso Beato, that are nonetheless rich in heightened color and fascinating detail.
Zwigoff and Clowes did much of the set dressing themselves, and there is generous use of cartoons and paintings by R. Crumb and other members of the docu subject’s family. Non-initiates may find the mystically indeterminate ending baffling; fans will hope it signifies a sequel.