Disenfranchised youth

Sardonic teens skewer modern life in subversive Ghost World

For most of the Ghost World audience, Enid (Thora Birch) will be merely a sociological curiosity, a corrosively alienated teen in jet-black hair, vintage frocks and Doc Martens, contemplating her post-high school future in a dismal adult world. But for a small minority of viewers who have harbored an Enid within, this astounding creation will be subversion's poster girl.

A Holden Caufield for the disenfranchised alterna-set, Enid is scathing in her meat-grinder dissection of America's corporate, strip-mall culture, but she's also achingly vulnerable beneath her sardonic riot grrrl facade. Enid and her skilled puppetmaster, Birch, do great justice to the bilious mood and mire of righteous anger and defeat bubbling up from the underground culture in Terry Zwigoff's exceptional film version of the celebrated Daniel Clowes graphic novel.

As with his brilliant documentary Crumb, which chronicled the hostile occupancy in this unoriginal world of counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb and his eccentric brothers, Ghost takes up the alternative comics cause again, using this band of teenage girl outsiders to show just how vacuous and lame the non-clued-in "straight" world can be. Ghost World's landscape — a purposefully Anywhere U.S.A. — is Enid and best friend Rebecca's (Scarlett Johansson) persistent foil: a depressing concrete-paved promenade of chain stores and a vacuous postmod culture that strip mines the past for lack of an original vision.

The surface of Ghost World is taken up with the girls' scabrous riffs on the world around them, a universe of posers and half-wits and neo-Nazis. As summed up in Enid's gleeful chortle as she appraises the clientele of a porn store, "Look at all the creeps!" But the subtext in this pivotal post-high school graduation summer is Enid's search for some sign of intelligent life in the adult community she soon will be joining. Though Clowes has suggested that his evocative title "Ghost World" refers to the remnants of an original, authentic culture paved over by a soulless corporate one, in Zwigoff's film the "Ghost World" also might be the soulless automatons of adulthood, the vaporous mere leavings of real human beings.

While the girls of Ghost World are preternaturally cool, armored with an Oscar Wilde sense of bemused distance and barbed wit, all of the men have the sunken chest, navel-gazing aspect of mere peripheral characters in this Girl World. They are embodiments of the self-flagellating self-hatred of the graphic novel zeitgeist. Enid's divorced father is a sniveling, aproned milquetoast in the Rebel Without a Cause Jim Backus mode. The adult Enid most closely identifies with — an obsessive 1920s record collector and retro-culture junkie named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) — is a dissipated near-eunuch whose masculinity seems to have taken a horrified flight from his body.

Clearly disgusted by her father (whose domineering ex-wife is making an unwelcome return into their lives), Enid finds Seymour to be the perfect antidote. Amazed that any adult could ever be cool enough to decorate his apartment with pulp magazine covers and offer the misanthropic quip, "I can't relate to 99 percent of humanity," Enid makes Seymour her pet project, attempting to find this confirmed bachelor a suitable girlfriend.

For all her bossy, backseat-driving piss and vinegar, Enid is still a girl curling up in her room to cry when her feelings are hurt or registering with utter poignancy the confused, sickened hurt of having her expectations for adults dashed again. Grown-ups in Ghost World always come equipped with a streak of yellow down the spine, whether it's her faux-feminist art teacher or Seymour, whose substitute father role turns sour when sexuality intrudes on their relationship. Zwigoff's real triumph in Ghost World is how beautifully he conveys the core of integrity that runs through the teenage spine, without seeming treacly or stupidly romantic.

Zwigoff and Clowes have sketched a teenage heroine of revolutionary depth, humor and grit, which Birch invests with real humanity. Though stylistically Ghost World is unremarkable and will only register as a virulently antisocial brand of comedy in the MTV-mode for the unenlightened, for others, Ghost World will be a kind of outsider's vindication encased in the radical skin of a teenage girl.??