At first, Ghost World seems to be an “edgy” comedy about two immaturely misanthropic teenagers and their middle-finger-to-the-world snarkiness. A very young Scarlett Johansson and American Beauty’s Thora Birch play besties Rebecca and Enid, girls just finishing high school and always ready with a withering remark for everyone. Classmates, teachers, parents, business owners, passerby–no one is spared their biting disdain. It gradually becomes clear, however, that the film will not be about indulging the girls’ hip bitch camaraderie but instead exploring their needs for identity and intimacy–especially Enid’s (Birch)–that percolate beneath their prickly surfaces.
Their aggressive detachment takes on humanizing consequences when they play a prank on a lonely man (Steve Buscemi) by responding to his personal ad in the paper and standing him up on the blind date they arrange. Enid offends her own conscience, and her sympathy for the sad sack Seymour is the beginning of an unusual friendship which gradually takes on a Harold and Maude quality. It is clear they are kindred spirits from early on, and their shared off-kilter tastes in music and pop art irony quickly forms a natural bond bridging their generational and gender gaps… almost. Buscemi’s Seymour is clearly torn between his need for connection and his awareness of the inappropriateness of their relationship, while young Enid is blissfully ignorant of their friendship’s strangeness. Together they are tragic and sweet, pulled together and pushed apart by their mutual brokenness.
Ghost World captures something important about the way kitschy weirdos get lost in obsessions because of feeling alienated and in turn how their alienation pushes them deeper into cultural obsessions and away from meaningful relationships. It strikes the perfect tone by neither romanticizing nor ridiculing such obsessions, but instead sympathetically mining the characters’ alienations and longing for relational intimacy.
The “ghost world” in question is the arch-world of pulp magazine covers and antiquated mid-century pop art that evokes a certain time and place in our cultural imagination–very much like the Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant in Pulp Fiction–but that never really existed as anything more than a confluence of graphic art sensibilities. Director Zwigoff finely evokes the way in which writer (of both screenplay and the original graphic novel) Daniel Clowes’ characters live at a kind of threshold between the “real” and the “ghost” worlds, forever at the mercy of their tortured souls and on the edge of retreat from psychological and emotional health.
It’s ultimately a sad film, because it’s characters cannot hope to be cured of their pain and social dislocation. Zwigoff does reserve a special dignity for them, a sure affection for their offbeat sensibilities, and the conviction that embracing your identity is better than trudging along with the blind seismic waves of culture en masse. It’s not much, but it’s something. Better people probing for meaning in life than comfortably numb. Still, it left me wishing for a sequel where Enid and Seymour both come to know a saving power bigger than their wounded hearts.