Ghost World is an often funny, often painful portrait of the abyss that is postadolescence. In the void between high school graduation and full adulthood, we find Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), bound together by their mutual misanthropy and desire not to go with the crowd, but still struggling to define themselves in a bland, commercialized world that increasingly disparages the kind of individuality they seek.
Ghost World is a teen movie only in the sense that the two main characters happen to be teenagers. Other than that, it shares nothing in common with the glut of teen movies that filled the screen at the time of its theatrical release. Granted, many of those movies are amusing and entertaining, but too often they are vapid affairs that have little interest in their characters and how they fit into a commodified world. More than anything, Ghost World stands apart because it is a striking film about the difficulties of asserting individuality, particularly for young people who are on the cusp of adulthood and must begin to define themselves outside of mocking the realm of adolescence that has consumed them for the past decade. The constant danger for Enid and Rebecca is that they are always on the verge of becoming the very losers that they define themselves by ridiculing. With little in the way of prospects ahead of them, the film's humor is constantly tempered by the fact that they may be the young version of all that they hate in adulthood.
Based on the acclaimed comic book by Daniel Clowes (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Terry Zwigoff), the story follows Enid and Rebecca over the summer following their high school graduation. United by their ironic detachment from the shallow world around them, neither wants to go to college, so they begin following through on their plans to move into an apartment together. Rebecca gets a job working at a Starbucks-like coffee shop, but Enid continues to float listlessly, not quite ready to give up the comfort of adolescence even though she refuses to believe that she has to rely on anyone, especially her well-meaning, but largely clueless single father (Bob Balaban).
Much of Enid's time is taken up in a remedial art class she has to take in order to finish up her high school diploma. Enid is a budding artist in her spare time, doodling cartoonish sketches of events in her life in a large book as a kind of diary. However, such work does not impress her teacher, Roberta (wonderfully played by Illeana Douglas), an obviously failed artiste with spiky red hair and a thing for leotards who inflicts her labored views about the socially transcendent power of art on her blank-faced students, at one point praising a brown-noser student who has created "found art" by sticking a tampon in a teacup. The struggle between Enid and Roberta over what "art" is sums up much of what the film is about, with Enid constantly trying to inject some form of authenticity into the class while Robert insists on "art" that says something, even if the student is merely saying that he or she wants an "A" and is willing to do whatever the teacher wants in order to get it.
Enid also spends a great deal of time with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a character that does not appear in the comic book but forms the emotional core of the movie (he also shares some personal and physical similarities to director Zwigoff). Enid first meets Seymour when she and Rebecca play a cruel joke on him by facetiously responding to a personal ad he has placed. Enid finds herself fascinated by the sad middle-age man who, lacking anything else in his life, collects rare 78s and obsesses over musical minutiae.
Buscemi has a tricky role here, and he pulls it off perfectly (if ever he deserved an Oscar nomination, it was here). Known as a character actor who often plays extreme roles, particularly explosive criminals, Buscemi gives the best performance of his career, suggesting Seymour's inner hollowness in both his quiet and his loud moments. Hampered by back pain and a sense of style that never evolved from when he was a young man two decades earlier, Seymour is a particularly sad character because he is fully aware of just how empty his life is; even though he fetishizes his record collection, he knows that it is simply a filler for something more emotionally rewarding that has been denied him. Thus, he and Enid make an odd complimentary pair, as her youthful, optimistic oblivion to her own lacking in life helps Seymour to find a girlfriend to fulfill his void, something that eventually begins to drive them apart.
Ghost World, however, is Enid's story, and director Terry Zwigoff, making a seemingly natural leap from the world of documentaries (he made the great Crumb about underground comic book artist Robert Crumb), strikes a magnificent balancing act in depicting Enid's essential self-centeredness without making it difficult to identify with her. Kudos should also be given to Thora Birch (best known for playing another disillusioned teenager in 1999's American Beauty), who physically resembles Clowes's comic book character, but more importantly captures Enid's struggle to define herself.
There are few revelatory moments in Ghost World-light bulbs never go off over the characters' heads as they suddenly realize something. Rather, Zwigoff gives the film a distinct rhythm that suggests the vagueness of postmodern life, the hum-drum daily grind in which friends like Enid and Rebecca gradually grow apart because one aspires toward adulthood while the other stays fixated in her own rut. Zwigoff and Clowes come up with a perfect visual symbol-a bus that was never supposed to arrive, but finally does-to suggest that perhaps Enid's time has finally come at the end. We don't find out exactly what happens to her, but we can rest assured that she will continue to be who she is, even if she finally learns to take responsibility for herself.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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