A Ghost of a Chance

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They have cast themselves as outcasts. Standing apart at their high school graduation, they gaze at the proceedings from the Olympus of their scorn. "This is so bad it's good," says Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Enid (Thora Birch) corrects her only friend: "This is so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again." The girls are subtle connoisseurs of bad. They have a favorite lousy comedian, ugly doll, porno store and, eventually, a favorite pathetic nerd. That's Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who collects old records and fresh psychic wounds. "I would kill to have stuff like this!" Enid enthuses when she sees Seymour's stash of 78s. "Please," he dourly replies, "go ahead and kill me."

Finally! After a heat rash of teen comedies that promote adolescence as a frenetic party where every kid pairs off with a comely partner and has fabulous sex, here comes the genre's cleansing, toxic antidote--Ghost World, the Heathers of the new century, the movie that shows how morose and furtive an ordeal growing up can be. Residing both within Enid and Rebecca and at an ironic distance from them, the film allows the viewer to see them--and Seymour, that other displaced person--with a kind of detached sympathy. When Seymour calls himself "an amusingly cranky eccentric curiosity," he might be describing the film as well.

Ghost World originated in Eightball, a serial comic book by Daniel Clowes, whose anatomizing of anomie--Pussey!, David Boring--has made him the R. Crumb of Generation Y. (The Ghost World title is graffiti Clowes saw on a wall in Chicago.) Enid and Rebecca first appeared in 1993. "The characters came to me spontaneously, fully formed, when I drew them in my sketchbook," says Clowes in his Oakland, Calif., home. "They felt like two parts of my personality. Enid is the id, dissatisfied with everything, not sure where she belongs; Rebecca is more pragmatic, trying to make the best of it. That's my inner conflict."

The two would have stayed on the page if not for Terry Zwigoff, best known for Crumb, his 1994 documentary on the cartoonist. Eager to direct a fiction feature, the San Francisco filmmaker got in touch with Clowes to work on Ghost World. At first, they tried a close adaptation of the comic. "It wasn't working," Clowes says. "We were sustaining the corpse of something. So we took little tangents and enlarged them, and took things that were large in the comic and shrank them down to tangents. It was changed at the atomic level." Clowes remained an active force during the shoot. "I have never seen a writer on set so much," says Johansson. "I kept telling him, 'Why are you here? You're the writer.' Joking, obviously."

Zwigoff gave Clowes complete control over the onscreen characters. And he agreed with the writer's belief that the girls should be played by actresses no older than 18. In the project's anguished gestation, Christina Ricci, the original star, grew too old for Enid. Enter Birch, fresh from her role as the daughter in American Beauty, and Johansson, who has been playing wise children for almost half her life (Manny & Lo, The Horse Whisperer). "Enid is an original," says Birch, now 19. "Timeless." So is the actress's incarnation. She gives Enid the stooped posture and scowl of an overweight spinster; she's a prematurely old soul. Johansson, now 16, is nifty as Enid's more passive ally. "Rebecca's head is screwed on right," Johansson notes, "but Enid's is sort of floating around."

Zwigoff's major contribution to the script was the fleshing out of Seymour, a minor character in the comic. Zwigoff took aspects from Robert Crumb and his brother Charles, but mainly, the director says, "he was based on me." It was easier to write the character than to get the studio bosses' approval of the actor to play him. "I fought and fought to have Steve Buscemi. We could have made this film four years earlier if I'd agreed to cast the people they were giving me, like Freddie Prinze Jr.--people who were absurd for the part. Also, we literally got a note, 'Can't we have a double wedding [at the end]?' They were serious. It's unbelievable people don't get a gun and start killing people down there." Zwigoff's stubbornness paid off. "I got the cast I wanted," he says. "I got left alone making the movie. That's a minor miracle down there. All the directors I've talked to can't believe how lucky I was."

One of the film's most startling and depressing images is a telephoto shot of a suburban street clogged with fast-food joints and retail shops; it could be a mug shot of Anywhere, U.S.A. Clowes said he wanted the theme to "hover in the background: the sense that everything in America is becoming the same." That is the case with most American movies about the young; they are as similar in taste and emotional nourishment as McDonald's is to Burger King. In this arid landscape, the edifice of Ghost World, with all its acute insolence, stands out like the Taj Mahal.