Looking back at Ghost World

Daniel Clowes’ cult comic about a pair of quirky teenagers teetering on the brink of adulthood made the transition to the silver screen ten years ago. Sarah looks back at Ghost World…

Ghost World is ten years old this week, and yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem to have aged at all. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca’s (Scarlett Johansson) self-consciously weird outfits wouldn’t look out of place on your average hipster fashion blog, and their separate struggles to navigate the tricky transition from high school to real life feel as fresh and relevant as ever.

I first saw Ghost World when I was at exactly the right point in my life to be most susceptible to its charms, around 17 or 18, trying to decide whether or not to go to university, worrying about moving out of home, trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. Back then, I sort of wanted to be Enid, and looking back at it now, it’s a little frightening how much I appear to have tried to look like her, haircut, glasses, fashion sense and all. I don’t want to be her any more, though.

Watching the film as an adult, it’s suddenly clear how selfish and awful teenagers can be (and, yes, I undoubtedly was). It’s both painful and funny to revisit Ghost World. While many superficially similar movies about disenfranchised teens seem mawkish or twee to adult eyes, Ghost World has lost none of its original appeal.

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Let’s look at it, then. At the beginning of the movie, best friends Enid and Rebecca graduate high school, or, almost, as it turns out Enid failed an art class and needs to retake it at summer school in order to escape properly. Standing on the sidelines of their graduation party, mocking their former schoolmates, the pair start to realise that they’re really leaving high school, that they’ll have to grow up, get jobs, move out, and generally find their own paths through the world from here on out.

While Rebecca eagerly scours the local paper, trying to find an apartment downtown that the two of them could afford to rent together, as per their seventh grade dreams, Enid is less sure about making the transition to adulthood. When Rebecca tells her they should buy “semi-expensive” outfits and dress like rich yuppies when they go to viewings, Enid’s knee-jerk reaction is to dye her hair a lurid shade of green. According to her, it’s an authentic 1977 punk look. To everyone around her, it’s teenage rebellion, a refusal to join the adult world. 

The schism between the two best friends grows quickly. While Rebecca manages to find, and keep a job at a local coffee shop, Enid bounces from one job to another, unable to submit to the authority of her managers, unwilling to dial down her cynicism and rudeness enough to even get by working on a popcorn stand at a local cinema. And while Rebecca exclaims over ironing boards and plans to spend her meagre wages on crockery, Enid’s busy finding other ways to pass her time. After all, she can always get a job tomorrow, or next week, or whenever.

One fateful day, Enid discovers a particularly pathetic-sounding “missed connections” ad in the local paper and arranges a fake blind date, lying in wait to ridicule the unfortunate chap who turns up. But when she sees Seymour (Steve Buscemi), she suffers an attack of conscience. With Rebecca in tow, she follows him home, and then gradually insinuates herself into his life. Unexpectedly, she finds that she has a lot in common with the cardigan-wearing loser, particularly a passion for old music and antique junk.

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The relationship that ensues is both awkward and charming, as Enid takes it upon herself to fix Seymour’s life. But unlike so many other films, in which meeting a quirky young woman improves the life of a grumpy old man, Ghost World doesn’t offer any such easy solutions. Despite Enid’s best intentions, her impulsiveness and selfishness ends up ruining almost every aspect of Seymour’s life. (From her perspective, she’s ruined her own life, too, but from ours, it’s clear how little was ever really at stake for her.)

The film resists giving us a happy ending, instead leaving us in an ambiguous kind of limbo. Rebecca has apparently made a sad little life for herself, with a crappy job and a small apartment, Seymour is forced to move back in with his overbearing mother, and Enid boards a mysterious bus to an unknown destination, riding off into the sunset. You could read it as hopeful or unbearable melancholy, depending on your own mood. The inconclusive ending invites interpretation, and somehow allows its characters to go on living past the end credits.

There are no easy answers for anyone, and maybe none of the characters are particularly likeable or easy to root for, but there’s an irresistible warmth and depth to the film.

Partly that’s down to the actors, all of whom are excellent.

Ghost World marks an interesting point in the careers of Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi. The film came almost a decade after Buscemi’s reputation-making turn as Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs, Birch, oddly, hasn’t made a notable film since, and Johansson, who’s kind of a fifth wheel here, was catapulted onto the Hollywood A-list by Lost In Translation just two years later.

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The supporting cast are no less interesting. Illeana Douglas plays Enid’s hippie art teacher, troubled former child star, Brad Renfro plays Enid and Rebecca’s friend, Josh, Arrested Development’s David Cross appears in one scene, and Patrick Fischler (recognisable to Mad Men fans as Jimmy Barrett) pops up behind the till in the video rental shop.

But while the acting is great, the film’s real strength is its careful writing and direction. Daniel Clowes, who wrote and illustrated the original comics, was involved with writing the screenplay, and Terry Zwigoff had previously directed Crumb, a documentary about controversial comics artist, Robert Crumb. So, the film’s practically dripping underground comics cred.

(Clowes and Zwigoff would go on to work together again in 2006’s Art School Confidential, another film based on one of Clowes’ comics.)

With an initially limited theatrical run in the US, Ghost World wasn’t exactly a runaway commercial success, but then the best movies never are. It was, at least, critically well-received. Right now, it has a ninety-two percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and regularly appears in lists of the best comic book movies ever made.

And rightly so. It’s smart, literate, and brilliantly observed. It captures exactly the ennui of small towns and the awful compromises that come with being an adult. The people you’re friends with at school often drift away as you grow up. Their priorities change, your priorities change, and having to work at an actual job eats away at your time and energy.

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Watching it now, as an adult, I want to shout at Enid at the same time as I still sort of want to be her. (Terrifyingly, I also recognise my boyfriend in Seymour. That scene where he shouts and screams and hits his steering wheel in frustration after a truck nearly hits his poor battered little car is just eerie.)

Maybe that feeling of being a teenage outsider never quite leaves you. Although there are a lot of cultural references in this film that are very, very American (the multiple scenes with the nunchuk-swinging shirtless redneck in the corner shop don’t feel like they could ever happen in the UK), there’s something universal about Ghost World. Its characters are weirdos, obsessives, lonely hearts who find most other people beneath them, but still want desperately to fit in.

It’s a story of a girl who doesn’t want to grow up, and a man who can’t, quite, and it’s sort of beautiful. The film doesn’t give us any distance from its characters, and we don’t look down on them, even if we don’t entirely like them. Ultimately, aren’t they us?

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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