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'Ghost World' (****)

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Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2006 10:00 pm

It's the big-budget adaptations of popular comic books that get all the press and audience attention ("Spider-Man," "X-Men," "The Fantastic Four," ad infinitum), but some of the most amazing screen adaptations are actually finding their origins in the world of graphic novels.

2005 saw "Sin City" and "A History of Violence," both of which helped set a new standard for the genre, but before last year my favorite interpretation of a comic - graphic novel or otherwise - was 2001's "Ghost World," Terry Zwigoff's penetrating deconstruction of the classic "coming of age" story. It didn't garner much attention when originally released, but it deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in the modern counterculture and an appreciation for tricky page-to-screen transformations, or anyone who simply loves carefully observed studies of original and interesting characters - in other words, everyone.

Our protagonist is Enid (Thora Birch), though it might be more accurate to call her an anti-heroine. She's the kind of person we all knew in high school: intelligent and capable, but so in love with her own intellect and dry wit that she alienates those around her and exists in a social bubble - a bubble that is supposed to be burst when she graduates high school and discovers that in the real world, she's not nearly as superior as she likes to think.

But Enid hasn't come to that realization. Her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) shares many of Enid's personality traits, but is at least making an effort to grow up and adjust to adult life. Meanwhile, Enid makes a half-hearted attempt at continuing her education at a local art school, and befriends an older, reclusive geek named Seymore (Steve Buscemi, in his finest performance), who may be more right for her than either of them realize.

"Ghost World" stands up to repeat viewings not only because it's a great film filled with smart dialogue, but because there's always something new to find. Not just little things, either: I've seen the movie four times, and on each occasion I found myself questioning the very themes of the story; the characters' most base motivations; and the haunting final shot, which could conceivably be interpreted as happy, bittersweet or downright dismal. Even if I have to see "Ghost World" 100 more times to finalize my opinions about it, I'll consider that time well spent.

"Ghost World" is rated R for profanity and sexual content.

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