"In a way, he's such a clueless dork he's almost cool," a girl named Enid says about a guy named Seymour in Terry Zwigoff's comic yet melancholy ode to freaks and geeks, Ghost World. And believe you me, Enid knows dorky from cool, having spent countless hours charting the all-but-invisible gradations from one to the other. Recent high school graduates, she and her best friend Becky have nothing better to do than patrol the streets of their strip-mall paradise, assigning grades to all the phonies and weirdoes. These two don't just kill time, they string it up and torture it until it begs for mercy. What only Becky seems to realize, however, is that time nevertheless keeps marching on. They may actually have to grow up in here somewhere.
Based on the comic-book novella by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World is a Gen Y (Gen Z?) Catcher in the Rye, a coming-of-age story that sees the whole world from the perspective of those who are coming of age. With her vintage-hip clothes and her hairsplitting sensitivity to changing fashions, Thora Birch's Enid is both utterly unique and a walking, talking clichÃ, a one-of-a-kind cartoon. And Birch, who played the equally alienated daughter in American Beauty, only heightens this effect by playing Enid as if she were a comic-strip character. Her face all but expressionless, her arms held tightly at her sides, she walks across the screen as if from one comic panel to the next. When she speaks, you can almost see the thought balloons hovering over her head.
Zwigoff and Birch were taking a chance by making Enid so determinedly 2-D, but Birch manages to take us through the full gamut of emotions. Enid's friendship with Seymour, who's twice her age and has spent most of that time compiling a vast collection of 78-rpm records, is original to the movie, and who better to play Seymour than Steve Buscemi, the coolest dork since Robert Crumb, the subject of Zwigoff's last film? "He's the exact opposite of everything I completely hate," Enid says about Seymour, a line that, in the context of Enid's esthetic, registers as a heart-pounding declaration of love. By spraying so much venom, Ghost World at times comes off as both cooler-than-thou and uncooler-than-thou. Mostly, though, it's just cool.