When you graduate from high school and have absolutely no intention of going to college, and little interest in getting a nine-to-five job, where do you go from there? 18-year-old Enid (Thora Birch) isn't quite sure. An offbeat, "tell-it-like-it-is" kind of girl with a best friend in Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), they leave their graduation ceremony by stomping on their caps and giving the school the middle finger, never looking back. But there's a little sadness on Enid's part in leaving a place where, although she realizes she wasted her time at, at least had a sense of security in knowing what she was supposed to be doing with her time.
"Ghost World," directed by Terry Zwigoff (1995's award-winning documentary, "Crumb"), is a bleak comedy filled with both humor and deep-seeded insecurities. Based on the cult comic book by Daniel Clowes, the movie is a perceptive and darkly funny look at post-adolescent bewilderment, a time between being a child and an adult when you simply don't know where you should be going, and what your goals should be. Capturing this stage of development with just the right amount of pathos and thoughtfulness, director Zwigoff has created a rich, one-of-a-kind character study that proves difficult to shake.
Enid and Rebecca do have some sort of future goal, which is to move into an apartment together. Rebecca diligently garners a job at a local Starbucks (she realizes money is a necessity in moving out on your own), while Enid doesn't seem to have the gumption to do much of anything but while away her hours on her own terms. Required to take a summer art class with an unconventional feminist teacher (Illeana Douglas) in order to officially receive her diploma, Enid spends the rest of her time running around with Rebecca, stopping at coffee shops to "people-watch," and dropping by a convenience store to bug one of their classmates, Josh (Brad Renfro).
Just for kicks, Enid and Rebecca jokingly answer a personals ad, only to spy on the terribly shy and dorky Seymour (Steve Buscemi) waiting listlessly for a woman who is not going to show up. Enid is surprised to find herself sympathizing with Seymour all of a sudden, and ends up striking up a friendship with him when she starts drifting away from the more ambitious Rebecca.
"Ghost World" is the type of motion picture that isn't as much concerned about its eventual destination as it is about the path that our heroine, Enid, will take in order to get there. Enid can be a little cruel and stubborn at times, but she does have a good heart, and as her life progresses throughout the summer, she finds what little plans she used to have slowly drift away. Enid is one of the most purely original character creations in years, and turns out to also be one of the most likable. She may be overly honest and opinionated, but that is just more reason to fall in love with her--a young woman who plays by her own rules, other people, be damned!
As the unorthodox Enid, Thora Birch (1999's "American Beauty") is a revelation. Having to more or less carry the entire film on her shoulders, Birch jumps at the chance of making Enid her own, and doesn't shy away from presenting her as an occasionally difficult and admittedly flawed human being. Birch strikes every note to perfection, and manages to be both astoundingly funny and accurately heartbreaking in her quest to find her true self.
The other roles in the picture are filled by an ensemble of marvelous character actors, each of which could not have been better. Scarlett Johansson (1998's "The Horse Whisperer") has the less showy of the two central roles, but in many ways, her Rebecca is every bit as poignant as that of Enid. Johansson auspiciously paints Rebecca as a girl who feels both obligated and frustrated by her friendship with Enid, as what their looking for in life eventually becomes quite different. As the hopelessly nerdy Seymour, Steve Buscemi (2000's "28 Days") is equally touching. Buscemi has decided not to make Seymour someone to be pitied, but to almost admire for both his kindness and his unadulterated love for music and records, and this was definitely the correct choice. Finally, Illeana Douglas (1999's "Stir of Echoes") is a downright hoot as the groovy art teacher who encourages her students to express themselves in any way they know how.
"Ghost World" is uncompromisingly dark, to be sure, but much natural humor that comes out of the characters and situations allows it to also stand as a comic delight. When Enid finally does get a job, for example, it is to work at a movie theater, but she is fired on the first day. When one customer asks if they serve alcohol at the concession stand, Enid's response is, "I wish! Actually, you should wish, because after seeing this movie you're gonna wish you had ten beers!" And when another customer orders a buttered popcorn, Enid presents it to her by saying, "Here's your yellow chemical sludge."
The ending of "Ghost World" does not wrap things up in any conventional way, but that is in staying with the spirit of Enid, who wishes to be different in every way from other people sucked into manipulative commercialism. The final scene is thought-provoking and open-ended, to say the least, but it lacks that final close-up of our heroine that would have given it all the closure it needed. As is, the finale isn't entirely successful, but it is undoubtedly appropriate.
In a summer filled with the usual, countless explosions and special effects, here is a remarkably assured, "smaller" feature that is a far more satisfying experience than, say, "Planet of the Apes." With "Ghost World," writer-director Terry Zwigoff has crafted one of the best films of the year, a movie that takes a painstakingly realistic look at the difficulties of growing up.
©2001 by Dustin Putman