Wednesday 11 July 2012

Top 20 Films Challenge #4: Ghost World (2001)

We shall momentarily leave the 80's for a film that features Steve Buscemi. My list would not have been complete without him.

In Ghost World, best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), having just graduated from high school, are about to reluctantly face the grown-up world.

So why so high on my list? Well Ghost World is quite simply, the best depiction of teenage years I have ever seen, no mean feat considering how many films have tackled the subject.

The problem with films about teenagers is that they very seldom ring true: either showing an artificial image of what teenage life truly is, with characters far too wise for their age and over-written dialogues (Juno), or falling into the stereotype of every concerned parent's nightmare: the oversexed teens and their hellish descent into all sort of substance abuse. Other times, they are far too idealised, which is particularly common with French films and their eloquent, floppy haired young philosophers on their way to the Sorbonne.

Here the film finds the perfect balance. When it begins, it is an understatement that Enid and Rebecca are not exactly likeable characters. Having just graduated from high school, they still live in their own bubble, jaded and cynicial, a protective mechanism typical of their age from which they look down on everybody and despise everything, just like any typical teenager trying so hard to project such a a tough image to the world.

With nothing to do in the summer and bored senseless, they devise a prank to humiliate geeky social outcast Seymour (Steve Buscemi). Except that the plot does not follow an obvious route. Instead, the two once inseparable best friends soon begin to drift apart, and Enid takes an unexpected interest in the victim of his prank, striking a romantic friendship with him, having found some qualities that makes him different from all the other adults she knows, and almost seeing a kindred spirit in him.

Never have the complexities, frustrations and awkwardness of teenage life been so accurately depicted. Ghost World mercifully avoids some of the over the top excess of the usual films of this sub genre, by not having his two leads lose themselves in a world of drugs abuse, a lazy plot development if there ever was one. It just does not need that.

And Thora Birch's character here takes centre stage, as over the course of the summer, she soon begins to face life's small disappointments, as well as the concessions you are forced to make as part of growing up, while on the other hand, Rebecca seems to be adjusting to her more mature life, domesticated life even, to perfection. There is a hilarious scene as, hunting for a house for them two to share, she proudly shows Enid what seems like the coolest thing she as ever seen, a built in iron board in the kitchen cupboard, the exact sort of things that would have had her in stitches previously.

Enid on the other hand, is not faring too well.  Obviously an intelligent person with some artistic qualities, she cannot quite make the adjustment to the disheartening world of small jobs, of political correctness, of adult hypocrisy, while sometimes being a little too indulgent with herself and her own contradictions.

That is not to say that Enid point blank refuses to make any change, but everywhere she goes and everything she tries, her acute sensibility and her inability to make any concessions and bite her tongue often result in disaster.

Thora Birch is sensational, in a subtle and multi layered performance that makes it even more regrettable that, to date, she never found any role to match such a high. Just like many teenagers, she is at once very smart and curious, but also incredibly immature and manipulative, without realising the consequences of her actions, and despite developing some sort of feelings for Seymour, she also manages to wreck his one chance of happiness. And Steve Buscemi, one of the best actors ever to emerge from the American cinema, once again delivers a wonderful and nuanced performance, with a character who could easily have become a bit too one-sided played by somebody else. Indie darling Illeana Douglas also has a short but memorable part as a rather wacky but understanding art teacher.

The director also accurately portrays the life of a small town to perfection, one of shopping malls and pervasive boredom, which I have to admit is close to how I felt growing up (and many others will recognise it too), although I never dyed my hair green like Enid, only red, then blue. There is no extreme behaviour in her unnamed city, no religious nutjobs, no violence and abuse, there is even some sort of cultural and artistic life (albeit at a small level) but what is presented here is a quietly alienating and disapproving world, that is not so much chastising Enid as ignoring her since she does not quite fit so well in the mould.

In a way, that small time life described in here sort of came to an end with the advent of the internet. And you feel like Enid would have probably not have had such a hard time if she had been able to go online and see how much more to the world there is than her immediate surroundings. Ultimately, we are left with a rather sad and ambiguously symbolic ending, unsure of Enid will do next.

With a wonderful cast, a style of direction that is very precise without ever being showy, and a brilliantly wry and funny dialogue that manages to be witty yet true to life, this adaptation of the Daniel Clowes' graphic novel strikes all the right notes. It presents us some complex and oh so human characters, and while sometimes quirky, never feels too smug and knowing unlike so many other independent American films. The soundtrack has to be praised also, as seldom has one so perfectly captured the mood of a film, with an almost quiet, resigned melancholy.

In our interblogs film challenge, Martyn Conterio picked There Will Be Blood as his #5. You can read his post here. Tomorrow at number, we shall speak the international language of love. Well, Spanish anyway.

Ghost World. USA 2001. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi...

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