I am fascinated with how Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” has grown on me since I watched it for the first time around 15 years ago. At that time, I was a graduate student who was socially awkward but had been mostly happy and content with being surrounded by books and movies instead of people, and I was just mildly amused by its dry sense of offbeat humor as casually observing its lonely adolescent heroine’s angst from safe distance. When I revisited the film in this year, I recently passed 40 while still being alone after several disastrous attempts on serious relationship, and I came to recognize more loneliness from her and her unlikely friend.
For many adolescent kids out there, high school graduation is surely something to celebrate with joy and excitement before moving onto whatever will come next for them, but that is not the case for Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). For both of these two teenage girls, their high school graduation is another boring chapter of their mundane suburban life in California, and Enid cannot help but make a barbed comment, when one of their schoolmates who is giving a supposedly inspirational speech in the middle of their graduation ceremony (“I liked her so much better when she was an alcoholic crack addict – She gets in one car wreck and all of a sudden she’s Little Miss Perfect and everyone loves her.”).
Although they have been eager to get out of their high school, Enid and Rebecca actually do not have much plan about the next chapter of their life. Sure, they promised to themselves that they will get a job and then live together after their graduation, but neither of them has never thought beyond that, and they usually occupy themselves with observing their plain and dull surrounding environment with ironic detachment and a bit of naughtiness. One of their usual entertainments comes from a dorky lad named Josh (Brad Renfro), and this poor lad always becomes a schmuck to tease for Enid and Rebecca whenever they come to a local convenient store where he works as a part-time employee.
On one day, there comes another opportunity for naughty fun to Enid and Rebecca when they happen to spot one rather pathetic personal advertisement on a local newspaper. They decide to do a mean prank on the figure behind that personal advertisement, and that is how they come to encounter Seymour (Steve Buscemi). Right from when he enters a local restaurant where they are waiting for his appearance, this guy exudes that unmistakable aura of misery and loneliness, but Enid unexpectedly finds herself becoming quite interested in him in contrast to her best friend, who simply disregards Seymour as another loser to watch from the distance.
We can easily discern why Enid is so fascinated with Seymour. After all, as a girl of specific cultural taste with her own cynical sense of humor, she often feels alienated even when she hangs around with her best friend. In fact, we gradually gather that, despite their long friendship, Rebecca has stuck around Enid as a mere fellow outsider even though they do not share much between them besides their annoyance and frustration with their surrounding environment. Furthermore, Rebecca is actually ready to move forward on her own way, and we naturally come to sense more of the growing gap between her and Enid, who still fails to get stably employed unlike Rebecca.
From Seymour, Enid finds someone who can be a better alternative for friendship because, well, he is much lonelier than she is in many aspects. Whenever he is not working as an assistant manager in some local fast food restaurant chain company, he usually occupies himself with a vast collection of old LP records and some other old stuffs in his residence, and there is an amusing scene where Enid and Rebecca are completely at a loss while attending Seymour’s small private party full of his fellow LP record collectors. Unless you are a serious LP record collector, you will not totally understand what the hell these nerdy folks are talking about (Don’t worry – I don’t either, to be frank with you, though I would love to hear their opinions on how LP records become popular again these days).
Because Seymour has not had much luck or success in case of romantic relationship, Enid impulsively decides to help her new friend a bit. To their little surprise, that leads to a fairly successful dating for Seymour, but then, needless to say, both Enid and Seymour subsequently find themselves in a tricky emotional circumstance later in the story. What eventually occurs between them is not exactly surprising for us, but the movie never lets their complex relationship simply defined by mere mutual sexual attraction, and we come to empathize more with the aching need and confusion inside them.
“Ghost World” was Zwigoff’s first feature film after his two documentary films “Louie Bluie” (1985) and “Crumb” (1994), which is the vivid and fascinating presentation of the life, personality, and career of legendary American cartoonist Robert Crumb. As a filmmaker who did not hesitate to delve into his old friend Crumb’s personal demons while also struggling a lot with his own personal demons (He told Roger Ebert that he was so agonized by his back pain during that time that he actually slept with a gun under his pillow for killing himself at any point if that seemed necessary to him), he was surely the right director for the dark wit and melancholic sensibility of “Ghost World”, and he and his co-writer Daniel Clowes, who made the comic book series of the same name on which the movie is based, provide a number of sharp dialogue scenes which bring more depth and humanity to its main characters. While many of main characters in the film including Enid are not very likable to say the least, their palpable personalities linger on us a lot more than expected as occasionally enlivening their drab and mediocre suburban world, and even Enid’s hopelessly boring father leaves a bit of impression on us despite his sheer suburban banality.
The main performers of the film are pitch-perfect in their respective roles. As the center of the film, Thora Birch effortlessly embodies the angst and loneliness churning behind her character’s defiantly sardonic attitude, and her co-star Scarlett Johansson dutifully stands by Birch although she automatically draws our attention because of her current status as a major Hollywood actress. While late Brad Renfro is solid as a lad a bit too slow for Enid and Rebecca, Illeana Douglas is hilarious as Enid’s summer art class teacher who unwisely puts the freedom of artistic expression above political correctness when Enid presents one of Seymour’s old stuffs which is quite controversial to say the least, Bob Balaban, Teri Garr, Dave Sheridan, Pat Healy, and David Cross are also enjoyable in their small but colorful supporting parts.
The best performance in the film comes from Steve Buscemi, who should have been Oscar-nominated at that time (He received several major critics awards besides a Golden Globe nomination at least). While he can be a smart, ruthless gangster as shown from HBO TV series “Boardwalk Empire”, this ever-dependable character actor is born to play losers and loners because of his natural weary presence, and he is alternatively funny and poignant as fearlessly diving into the deep pathos behind his character’s meek appearance. He and Birth click with each other well with precise low-key comic timing whenever they are on the screen together, and you will not believe that he actually wanted to shed his character as soon as possible whenever the shooting was over.
On the whole, “Ghost World” can be an acquired taste to some of you, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its excellent handling of story, mood, and character. I will not go into details on the finale for not spoiling your little fun at all, but I can tell you instead that I appreciate the sublime poetic quality of a brief but important moment of epiphany for Enid – and how that beautifully leads to the tentative hopefulness of the following epilogue scene. Regardless of how her last shot in the film can be interpreted, you may sense that things might get better for not only her but also Seymour. Sure, they are still not that social or pleasant even in the end, but you will still care about what may be next for their respective lives, and that is surely an achievement.