Though financed by a major studio (MGM), Ghost World is a film that is defiantly independent in spirit, right down to its ambiguous ending. Director Terry Zwigoff - who made an intriguing documentary about the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb in '95 - has adapted his first proper feature from Daniel Clowes's graphic novel, with Clowes himself sharing writing credit.
Its two female protagonists, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), are caustic outsiders. Like The Catcher In The Rye's Holden Caulfield, they instinctively despise anything ""phoney"", whether it's dorks, do-gooders or pseudo-trendies. ""She'd better watch out or she'll get AIDS when he date-rapes her"," Enid sneers at a seemingly normal, well-adjusted couple. As for '20s jazz buff Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who's loosely based on Zwigoff himself, he freely admits that ""I can't relate to 99 per cent of humanity"."
What connects this trio is their shared dissatisfaction at living in an increasingly bland, homogeneous America: this Ghost World is a soulless universe of malls, corporate chains, multinational brands and fake diners. Precisely what attracts Enid to Seymour is that here is a man who's prepared to swim against the prevailing cultural tide and who takes his solace in collecting the pop-cultural artifacts of a past age.
Not only does the director display compassion towards his eccentric, marginalised creations, but the leisurely visual style suggests the look of the original comic-strip. Filmed in bright colours and in static, two-shot compositions by cinematographer Affonso Beato, it's also a set designer's dream, in which bedrooms overflow with all sorts of arcane memorabilia.
Clumping around in her bobbed-black hair, green lipstick and chunky spectacles, Birch is a strange mixture of acerbic wit and emotional vulnerability, while Johansson proves a coolly reserved foil. Buscemi captures the pathos at the very heart of Seymour and there are treasurable cameos from Bob Balaban as Enid's timorous Dad and Illeana Douglas as a politically correct art teacher. Those who doubted the documentarian Zwigoff's ability to direct actors will have to rethink.
American teenage comedies are rarely this subtle, perceptive or amusing. Director Terry Zwigoff and creator Daniel Clowes have fashioned both a terrifically acted portrait of adolescent ennui and a sincere lament for a fast-disappearing culture.