Somewhere in America, in a generic suburban town, with the same “creeps and weirdos” that frequent every American neighborhood, Enid, played by Thora Birch, and Rebecca, played by Scarlett Johanssen, have just graduated from high school and are reluctantly trying to figure out exactly what to do next. They want to be independent, but the prospect of getting a job and becoming like all of the other “stupid” or “depressing” people in the town does not appeal to them.
Produced by John Malkovich, based on Dan Clowes’ underground comic book, and directed by Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World is a comedy-drama reflecting the challenges of two teenage girls as they try to come to terms with the expectations of becoming an adult. In particular the film follows young Enid who seems simultaneously caught in a barren modern ghost world and in her own private ghost world, where she yearns for the sparkle and brilliance of ’50s and ’60s America. Together, Enid and Rebecca, the two young misfits, stand uncertainly at a major fork in the road of life with no real sense of where they need to go.
Their journey begins as the girls pass the summer together bluntly and unapologetically looking down on everyone and everything in their dull and odd little town. Indeed, the first half of the film is bitingly funny. It seems we’ll be taken for a ride with two post-high school teens as they try to find their places in the world and have a few laughs in the meantime.
But about halfway through, we realize that neither Enid nor the film is going to indulge our expectations. What has been created is some strange cross between American Pie and American Beauty, though with a personality and vision uniquely its own.
Despite continued humor generated through Enid’s summer school art class, during which Illeana Douglas gives a hilarious performance as a slightly neurotic artsy-fartsy teacher/artist/political activist, the film begins to move in a different direction. While Rebecca seems to come to terms with the responsibilities of adulthood by finding a job and an apartment of her own, Enid continues to flounder, resisting the encroachment of modern America’s homogenous commerciality, dominated by Nike and McDonald’s, on her funkier-than-thou existence. She attempts to follow Rebecca’s lead by finding a job in a movie theater, but finds herself warning patrons against the bad movie and the toxic sludge that is the butter on the theater’s popcorn, earning herself a prompt dismissal by the end of her first day.
The two girls find themselves growing apart, and their distance is pivotal to the film’s major change of mood. Enid finds herself more and more attracted to the older, spastic, 78-collecting, lonely Seymour (exquisitely played by Steve Buscemi, who is brilliant at portraying his socially inept character). The two girls had initially played a practical joke on Seymour, and Rebecca cannot accept Enid’s newfound attraction.
As Rebecca becomes more and more “normal,” taking on all the trappings of any other 18-year-old girl, Enid finds herself crumbling under the weight of the changes occurring around her. She and Rebecca have become estranged; her father has rekindled a serious relationship with an old flame; and Seymour has a girlfriend who prefers that he not have Enid as a fixture in his life. All that’s left for Enid is her “number one fantasy” of taking off without telling anyone where she is going: simply disappearing.
It seems the only plausible development of the story is that Enid will finally resolve her conflicts with the ghost world around her and with her strained relationships, or give up her craving for her other ghost world of groovy 78s and a culturally richer time long since gone. But as soon as we grow accustomed to the deadpan humor which floats the first part of the film and think we know what has to happen, everything becomes far more deeply ambiguous, and far more poignant.
Frustrated and alone, Enid decides that the only constant person in her life, Norman (a man who sits day in day out without fail waiting for a bus which has been discontinued), is the only one she can count on, and, in the film’s moving and unusual ending, we see that perhaps she is right.
Ghost World has much to recommend it, including flawless performances from its cast (which also included Brad Renfro as Rebecca and Enid’s common love interest, Teri Garr as Enid’s potential stepmother and Bob Balaban as Enid’s father). The film also exhibits stylish cinematography from Affonso Beato (which only falters because of occasional abrupt cuts in the film), and artful costume choices by designer Mary Zophres. The constancy of Enid’s bold and unadulterated blacks, reds and blues against the dull earth tones of Seymour’s attire and the muted pastels that begin to predominate Rebecca’s wardrobe as the story wears on provide an added dimension to the character development in the film.
Birch is particularly good at bringing her comic book character Enid to life, wonderfully combining the stock cartoonish nature of the original character with the nuance and complexity of a fully fleshed out human one. Indeed, all of the characters manage to be quirky and memorable without becoming one-dimensional caricatures.
The cast, Clowes and Zwigoff (who also co-scripted the film) deserve credit for carefully avoiding this problem.
Ultimately, the film is highly entertaining and engaging, but do not go in expecting your predictable run-of-the mill teen romp. Ghost World is perceptive, funny, provocative and poignant, a must-see, especially for those who delight in the eccentric and offbeat or ever have had difficulty with just fitting in.
At the end, especially given the puzzling ending, all one can really be sure about with this film is that the audience will probably want to download some old Bollywood 78s or at least buy the film’s weird but infectious soundtrack. As for Steve Buscemi fans, don’t leave before the end of the credits, where there is a special treat in store.