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Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff) 2001 /  My First Mister (Christine Lahti) 2001

 Here now, within the span of a few months, are two films that tackle the same, typically ignored subject of an American teenage girlís coming of age post-high school. The films feature excellent, recognizable, ensemble casts, but both works clearly belong to their respective stars. First up, Terry Zwigoffís Ghost World, based on the cult comic book by Daniel Clowes, features Thora Birch as Enid, a sarcastic social outcast that stumbles into a relationship with a middle-aged man. Secondly, Christine Lahtiís My First Mister, which also feels as if were based on Clowes' comic book, features Leelee Sobieski as Jennifer, a sarcastic social outcast who stumbles into a relationship with a middle-aged man. The films each cover several of the same elements of this stage in life. We see high school graduation (a non-event in both films), a refusal to go to college, several attempts to secure employment, and the search for a first apartment. If they werenít released concurrently, one might suspect the one of the authors of plagiarism.

 Still, the films manage to work somewhat differently. Ghost World, the better of the two movies, maintains a sense of gravity since although weíre shown plenty of Enidís antisocial behavior, the film doesnít exactly endorse it. It doesnít much endorse anything, but rather seems content to sit in the corner and call attention to everyoneís faults. My First Mister is a much more forgiving, sweeter film. Its protagonistís observations are meant to be astute and cute. Unlike Ghost World, which remains a bit detached from Enidís deconstruction of everything (though it celebrates her when she is right), Mister jumps right into Jenniferís point of view. She looks at the world through a pair of backward binoculars that distort everything, and the film literally gives us her point of view. When she imagines a characterís back end is fat, some computer graphics illustrate for us. This is much less deft than Ghost World, which manages to convey Enidís worldview without stooping to such flattery of its lead. Still, both films have a first half that is extremely funny. Both characters possess a rapier wit, and lash out with reckless abandon, and both films wisely recognize their cynicism as a defense mechanism.

 What really separates the two films in terms of quality are their resolutions. Ghost World becomes profoundly sad when itís made apparent to the audience, though not entirely to Enid, that her alienation will ultimately place her in the same state as Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the object of her affections. The pair shares a fondness of old records. Itís an attempt to find a genuine, noncommercial authentic emotion that doesnít seem to exist in the mass-produced society of today. When Enid comments that she admires Seymourís collection, he remarks that he would trade all of his cool stuff away for normalcy. The film is not content to allow the critics of society off easily. At the filmís end, Enid is changed by her experiences, but the change is ambiguous. She is moving toward something different, but her future is still quite uncertain. My First Mister has little of the same ambiguity in its ending. Just over halfway through the film, the storyís central element, a relationship between Jennifer and her store manager (Albert Brooks), is jettisoned as things shift toward the maudlin. The genuine sweetness that the gave the film a distinctiveness turns against the film. The momentum that the film had is not lost entirely, but the filmís shift toward the dramatic doesnít work. Sobieskiís performance, which seemed brilliant and touching in the filmís comedic first half, isnít quite focused enough to really sell some of the dramatic moments later on. Thing fumble most, however, when the film begins handing out a catharsis to each member of the entire cast. The film grows so focused on giving every single person a happy ending that it loses focus about itís central theme. Still, the failures of My First Mister are outweighed by its success, even if it isnít quite as resonate as Ghost World. Both films are capably directed and well acted. Both are well worth seeing.

Ghost World ****

My First Mister ***

September, 2001

Jeremy Heilman