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by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Ghost World | Terry Zwigoff

August 4, 2021

“We get it — you’re different!” That’s what I’d say to Enid (Thora Birch), adopting the same cynical, ironic tone she applies to everything in her immediate vicinity, if I saw her clomping down the street in her combat boots or sniping at the movies in the rental store. Everything from her permanent scowl to her green hair — “It’s obviously a 1977 original punk rock look!” she snarls — practically begs to be acknowledged, but, being a teenager, she also spends a lot of time wanting to disappear. Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 coming-of-age/black comedy (based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name) is a widely beloved holy grail of Gen-X teen angst and Enid is its prickly black heart. 

The only person she can stand is her best friend Rebecca (a sixteen-year-old Scarlett Johansson), who is pretty and popular and increasingly willing to do things otherwise reserved for insufferable squares, like shop for housewares or hold down a job. After graduating high school, Enid is stuck in a remedial art class taught by the delightfully cringy Roberta (Illeana Douglas) while Rebecca works as a barista, saving up for their shared apartment. Enid’s funemployment consists of playing pranks on unsuspecting strangers, like sketching weirdos at the local diner and responding to an especially pathetic-sounding personal ad, spying on the poor sap as he drinks a vanilla milkshake for one. This latter act of cruelty introduces her to the awkward, obsessive Seymour (Steve Buscemi, perfect), whose idea of a party is arguing with other record collectors about enlarged holes and tight cracks. His presence in Enid’s life is part revelation, part crisis, and their unlikely friendship is tinged with an uncomfortable attraction.

For Enid, Seymour is the “exact opposite of all the things I hate” and a welcome counterpoint to their dreary, anonymous town of big-box stores filled with “extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers.” Instead of attempting to conform, as Rebecca does, he chooses to sidestep the game altogether. He’s worked the same dull job for nearly two decades and his entire social circle consists of equally bumbling music snobs. He is so reclusive that even an outing to see his favorite blues guitarist is mired in anxiety and disappointment. Enid and Seymour can be their most misanthropic selves together, but at what point do kindred spirits become enablers? 

One of the reasons Ghost World is so essential is because its teenagers are refreshingly normal. Their high school doesn’t look like a castle; they don’t have obscenely rich parents (Clueless) or parade around in acidic power suits (Heathers). Enid may dominate the narrative, but Zwigoff makes the point that Rebecca isn’t inherently worse for trying to live a “normal” life. In fact, there’s a pretty strong argument for not resisting conformity, because the road from snarky Enid to hermetic Seymour is basically a straight line. Granted, this is not a very punk rock attitude, but Ghost World’s target audience is surely familiar with this crossroads. 

And Enid, for all her world-weary tendencies, is basically still a child, dealing with the triple abandonments of her father reuniting with an old girlfriend, Seymour leaving her for Dana — the age-appropriate subject of his personal ad — and Rebecca outgrowing their shared outcast status. Notice the expression on her face when her art teacher dismisses her sketches as frivolous cartoons, instead fawning over a classmate’s painfully vapid “found art” sculptures. She moves from hurt to incredulous to annoyed, each new emotion layered on top until the pain is fully buried. Like all of us, Enid just wants to be accepted, celebrated, and loved for who she is, and what teenager can bear to admit something so embarrassing? She acts out accordingly, submitting Seymour’s racist historical poster as her final art project (which costs her a scholarship opportunity at the local art school) and purposely sabotaging her job at the movie theater so that she can’t move in with Rebecca. This classic cocktail of boredom and self-destruction is something we’re supposed to grow out of; Rebecca certainly has, as she excitedly shows Enid the built-in ironing board in her new apartment. Needless to say, Enid is unmoved.

Despite the relatively straightforward story, Zwigoff injects some mildly surrealist flourishes that imbue the film with a slightly unnerving sensibility. For example, the director purposely kept extras to a minimum to give the city streets a vast, strange emptiness. Only stores are occupied as normal, further fueling Enid’s rants about mindless consumer culture. And in the hands of cinematographer Affonso Beato, their unnamed city feels just a hair too bright, as if Enid’s caustic intensity could whip into a self-combustive freak-out at any moment. Then there’s Norman, the well-dressed old man who sits at the bus stop day in, day out, despite being told that that line no longer runs. In this way, he and Enid are also kindred spirits: they have no awareness of time and no sense of urgency. They can wait all day for the world to conform to their expectations. And one day it does, and Enid watches in amazement as a completely empty bus pulls up and Norman gets on. 

Once she realizes that she no longer has to choose between Seymour and Rebecca’s opposing lifestyles, she suddenly has agency. She can go at it alone. The film ends with Seymour in a therapist’s office, doing the unglamorous work of examining his life, and Enid on the bus, choosing isolation — or is it independence? — once and for all. It’s not a typical happy ending, but it’s not necessarily bleak, either (though there are those who interpret the bus as a metaphor for suicide.) Of all the movies out there about female friendship, Ghost World may be the saddest and gentlest, despite its defiant heroine, because it starts past when the central friendship has already peaked. Instead of giggles and slumber parties and other hallmarks of teenage sisterhood, Enid and Rebecca navigate a much stranger and more complex downward slope. Gradually, and then suddenly, they no longer seem to recognize each other. At that point, what’s stopping them from disappearing?

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.