From "Sixteen Candles" to "The Opposite of Sex," the acid-tongued ingenue has been a staple character of the movies. Now meet "Ghost World's" Enid (Thora Birch of "American Beauty"), the latest onscreen kid for whom scorn is a way of life.
"This is so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again," Enid muses early in director Terry Zwigoff's wicked little coming-of-age film, as another distasteful experience impedes her progress from high school to adulthood. It isn't as if she's asking for much: She merely wants to complete a remedial art class, earn her diploma and rent an apartment with her almost-as-acerbic best friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). But Enid's larger, less acknowledged quest is to find her spiritual place in the world around her. The obstacle? "Everyone's too stupid."
It's one of her lesser bon mots. Still, Enid is head and shoulders above most of her smart-aleck forebears. Perhaps it's because she holds a multimedia pedigree: "Ghost World" is based on an underground comic book by artist Daniel Clowes, who co-wrote the film's script with Zwigoff. (In modern-day parlance, an "underground" comic is one that's actually read before it's stored in protective plastic.) You won't see Enid action figures rubbing elbows with tiny X-Men on toy-store shelves -- not when the funny, smart and politically incorrect "Ghost World" trades in punchlines about date rape, AIDS, the Greek national character and "a woman's right to choose." The film is as out of place in the comics-to-film pantheon as Enid and Rebecca are at their graduation ceremony, in which a clumsy, pseudo-inspirational speech by a car-crash victim in a wheelchair is immediately followed by a three-girl rap number.
Zwigoff has instigated the biggest deviation from the comic by giving Enid a semi-love interest in Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a nebbish of a record collector and nostalgia buff who says he "can't relate to 99 percent of humanity." He's a near double for Clowes' fellow underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, whom Zwigoff profiled in a 1994 documentary.
Birch can do sarcasm with the best of them, and her thrift-shop good looks are right on the money. But she isn't entirely effective in the pivotal scene in which Enid realizes that the mercilessly mocked Seymour is, well, kinda cool. With that seismic attitudinal shift, Birch is supposed to reveal the passionate optimist who resides within each self-professed cynic, young or old. That she can't really pull it off is not without precedent: Molly Ringwald was always hardest to take when she tried to simulate warmth, and Christina Ricci has barely touched the stuff since "Mermaids." If "Ghost World" is more skillful when it's being snide, chalk it up as merely one specter of the past this otherwise uncommonly good film can't quite exorcise.