Catchers in the Wry

By Rich, B. Ruby | The Nation, September 3, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Catchers in the Wry

Rich, B. Ruby, The Nation


Ah, the films of summer. When they get it right, they win our hearts. A sublime treat with which to beat the heat, Ghost World deserves every bit of the praise that has been rolling its way. Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Louie Bluie) has conquered the jinx that so often afflicts filmmakers trying to make the transition from documentary to fiction. That he gets it right is due in no small part to his co-scenarist Daniel Clowes, whose cult comic Ghost World provides the raw material that here mutates so aptly into a loopy coming-of-age story packed with genius one-liners, the detritus of popular culture and a never-ending lineup of oddball characters. What is truly remarkable, though, is that these two 40-something guys have captured the world of teenage girls with sublime accuracy.

Best friends Enid (Thora Birch, who was so good in American Beauty) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, first discovered in Manny & Lo) have it all: Thrift-shop outfits--assembled with a jaundiced eye for fashion--accompany rooms packed with carefully edited stuff and attitude to match. Claiming their inalienable rights as teenagers, the two exercise an unmitigated scorn for all adults in the immediate vicinity and a consummate ability to reconfigure anyone via sassy vitriol. Ghost World opens on Enid and Rebecca's high school graduation and chronicles their summer of discontent, by the end of which their friendship will be in tatters and their future prospects will be, well, reduced.

The summer after high school is quintessentially the time when the bravura hits the fan. Think Dazed and Confused for girls, and then imagine a completely different film: an anti-Clueless wrought by a sensibility seemingly shaped by reading The Catcher in the Rye at an impressionable age and carrying it forward to twenty-first-century suburbia. (That the suburb is Los Angeles as envisioned by a pair of San Francisco/Berkeley artistes guarantees that it's meant to be a nightmare.) Almost without exception, Ghost World hits its target with a bull's-eye. It renders, nearly pitch-perfect, the tone of teenage girls' friendship--the overidentification and competition, the combined desire for and horror of boys/men, the simultaneous reinvention and rejection of femininity and the torment of succumbing to minimum-wage conformity while desperately trying to figure a way out.

Enid is part Goth, part Holden Caulfield. She's first seen rocking out to a classic Indian Bollywood film and disdaining the dude music of her contemporaries and its pretentious practitioners. She narrativizes everyone in her path. Haunting cheap retro-1950s diners, Enid sketches the down-on-their-luck customers and constructs story lines for them with Rebecca, her inseparable but prettier pal, who may be less verbal but is equally disaffected (and woefully underwritten). They turn one pathetic couple into Satanists and make a lowlife crackpot into their private antihero. When a personals ad in the weekly paper (a plea from a "bookish fellow" to the woman he was too shy to speak to on an airplane) offers them an opportunity for a prank, it sets the film's plot in motion. Enid and Rebecca impersonate the target, then trail their victim to the Wowsville diner for his no-show date.

They're still kids, of course, for all their daring. That they're being cruel doesn't occur to them until mid-assignation. For Rebecca, the game is then over and it's time to move on to the next best thing: getting jobs so they can afford their dream apartment. She finds employment at a Starbucks-esque cafe with its own retinue of oddballs, while Enid's sole attempt at gainful employment is a hilarious disaster sure to thrill anyone who's ever darkened a multiplex. She works--for one day--at a movie theater refreshment stand, where she's ordered to push larger sizes than requested and warned to stop dissing the movies to the customers. Enid's insolent enactment of these rules is hilarious and naturally leads to her departure from the, uh, profession.

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