Alone again, naturally: Thora Birch in Ghost World

In director Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb, the titular cartoonist sits in a Haight-Ashbury café recalling the advice that Janis Joplin once gave him on how to score with women. She figured that if the dorky-looking R. Crumb grew his hair out and started wearing billowy satin shirts, bellbottoms, and platform shoes, he'd "do all right." But the iconoclastic creator of Mr. Natural couldn't bring himself to dress the part of a standard-issue Sixties love child. "The whole thing was just too silly for me," he recalls in the film. "I couldn't get with it."

And, in another era, neither can Enid, the 18-year-old heroine of Zwigoff's Ghost World, faithfully adapted from Daniel Clowes's cult-comic series. Like Crumb, but even more acutely, Ghost World portrays resistance to conformity as a kind of social protest--what Joplin, ironically, was singing about in "Ball and Chain." Being tied to someone (or something) else is a tradeoff: What we gain in comfort and companionship, we lose in freedom and individuality. And Enid, a hyper-self-aware, eye-rolling young malcontent in kitschy vintage garb, would surely appreciate the irony of the film's subcultural appeal: that while she fights like hell to cobble together a unique identity out of various thrift-store signifiers, she herself is being sold on the Ghost World poster to other hyper-self-aware, eye-rolling young malcontents in kitschy vintage garb whose values she's presumed to share. But let's not worry too much about that. Zwigoff's film isn't likely to cross over to the kind of mass-market multiplex where our protagonist works dripping chemical "butter" on stale popcorn and casually berating ticket buyers. As a smart and complex adolescent female character in an American movie, Enid is just (dare I say it?) too alternative.

Likewise, Ghost World doesn't fit the generic confines of the horror movie, although it is a spookily insightful ode to teen-girl geekdom--the horror of the title referring to the supernatural vacancy of Starblockbusterandnoble monoculture and those hollow souls whom it possesses. Set during the summer after high school graduation, the film depicts the ardent tour of pathetic humanity undertaken by Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), who gradually part ways as the latter gravitates toward the department store. If you're not already a cultural critic by hobby or profession, the movie bids to turn you into one, as everything in the frame--the cake-scarfing of a pudgy preppy at the big dance, the very special valedictory speech of a teen car-crash victim, the shallow p.c. prejudices of the school art teacher (Illeana Douglas)--exists for Enid's merciless comment, and, eventually, ours. Zwigoff's brilliance lies in drawing a city so familiarly empty and nondescript that the quirkier details of character stick out immediately--as they do to Enid, whose notebook of sketches (like Crumb's) catalogues and condemns a host of bookworm "losers" and elderly diner-dwellers according to their clichéd exteriors.

And yet, like its heroine, Ghost World dares to drop its defenses, deepening as it shifts from evoking sympathy for the judgmental misanthrope to saluting the bravery of those who find beauty in others' flaws. Bonding with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), an eccentric middle-aged collector of old blues 78s (what would white hipsters ever do without black culture?), Enid discovers "the exact opposite of everything I hate": a guy who, as he says, "can't relate to 99 percent of humanity." Still, to the end, Ghost World resists conforming to cuddly optimism or hasty domestication: Without giving it away, let me just say that Enid makes like a ghost--or, as Crumb would put it, she keeps on truckin'. May she retain her edge, find the one who's just her type, and never, never sell out.

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