Greatish Performances #24

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#24 — Thora Birch as Enid in Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

Expert portrayal of the precise brand of withering contempt found in the American teen-aged girl is, by definition, a talent of fleeting utility. While Thora Birch may have had a few other impediments in her quest for career longevity, it’s not implausible that she would have difficult time pushing past her young adult years simply because she so perfectly embodied a particular stretch in late adolescence, when the intellect slightly outpaces maturity, which in turn leads to a complete certainty that the rest of culture is disastrously backward and inane. Birch hit this mark in American Beauty, providing barbed humanity that contrasted effectively with the loose satire of Kevin Spacey’s justly Oscar-winning performance (director Sam Mendes evidently misconstrued or at least disregarded the cores of both of those performances, instead approaching the material with a pedantic self-importance that all but sinks the film).

Fine as Birch’s performance is in American Beauty, it’s mere prelude to the nuances she’d find a couple years later with a superficially similar character. Adapted from a comic book story by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World cast Birch as Enid (who had the full name of Enid Coleslaw in the original work), a young woman freshly graduated from high school who is confronting the new aimlessness of her life with a wayward level of commitment, to the increasing irritation of her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). As directed by Terry Zwigoff and adapted for the screen by Zwigoff and Clowes, the film is shaggy and wryly downbeat, often eschewing plot in favor of mood and accumulated incident. At its best, the film is resolutely about who the characters are instead of what they do.

Given that impetus to explore, Birch creates fascinating layers within Enid. She doesn’t downplay the character’s disaffected brattiness, approaching the various moments of scathing judgment with a tart comic timing. There’s also no sense that Birch is trying to excuse the more problematic behavior of Enid by signaling the vulnerabilities that are in place. The portrayal acknowledges that Enid is a challenging person. Wisely, though, it doesn’t rely solely on that prevailing piece of the characterization. Enid can find pathos in a scratchy old blues song or even poignancy in the kitschy nonsense she simultaneously adores and mocks. Even as Enid indulges in unguarded insults against anyone who’s different, as in a scene in which she cajoles her new friend Seymour (Steve Buscemi) into accompanying her to the sex shop she’s always wanted to visit, her outsized enthusiasm for the twisted flotsam of society she encounters is buoyantly infectious and even a little charming. Compare that to the curmudgeonly complaints Seymour levels against any art or music that doesn’t pass his own uncompromising purity test.

For all of Enid’s unkindness, Birch allows that there’s a strange hope embedded in her, an openness to possibility. When Enid gives in to sentiment, it should feel like the act is in opposition to the acidic cynicism that is her default mode. In Birch’s portrait, however, it is clearly another facet of the same person, someone who just so happens to be in the midst of figuring out her truest self. All sorts of child actors have difficulty growing into older roles. Though Birch did her time in goofball kiddie fare, it was her perfectly calibrated work during those years in which she was poised on adulthood, the spot when countless predecessors were felled by awkwardness, that halted her forward motion. She’s so strong at playing the tumult of that time that it’s difficult to conceive of her as comparatively settled. As Enid, Birch shows how growing up is a promise that is fulfilled too slowly. She does it well enough that it feels all too apt for the actress to remain stranded in that point, perpetually awaiting the next stage that never quite arrives.



About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed

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