WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Mocking misfit Enid graduates from High School with best friend Rebecca, but whilst Rebecca settles into work, Enid has nothing better to do than play a prank on Seymour, a shy record collector. Enid and Seymour become better acquainted and she encourages him to dive into the world of dating, but Enid struggles to come to terms with what she really wants – from friends old and new, and from life.
It is rare that a film aimed at adults (primarily young adults in this case) features young female leads ahead of the male cast, and even rarer that the female leads are not portrayed first and foremost as sexual objects; in these respects, Ghost World is to be congratulated. Centred on bright but stroppy teenager Enid (Thora Birch), this adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel takes a frank and feisty look at those ‘difficult’ teenage years.
Enid and her friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johannson) inhabit the geekier end of the High School spectrum, so are delighted when they no longer have to attend – except that having failed art, Enid must go to summer lessons in order to graduate, a pain since she would much rather make fun of everything around her in Los Angeles, including her would-be lover Josh (Brad Renfro), who works at a store whose owner is as frightening as the customers; the naff 50s-style diner whose jukebox plays horrible modern dance; and especially Seymour (Steve Buscemi), the bookish man she lures into the diner having pretended to be the woman he sought in a plaintive personal ads message.
Despite finding Seymour pitiable, she nonetheless takes enough of an interest to buy records from him at a yard sale; they find they share the same esoteric tastes, and a strange relationship develops in which young Enid hands out most of the advice to the older man. Meanwhile, Rebecca is cut out of the picture and carries on with plans to move into her own apartment, her friendship tested when Seymour actually gets himself a date with a woman his own age, leaving Enid with nobody else to call.
There are some lovely pieces of cultural contrast in Ghost World, Enid and Seymour’s love of Delta Blues set against mindless rockin’ and the ghastly but relevant artwork of the Coon Chicken Co. put alongside fatuous feminist pieces such as a tampon in a teacup (bringing brilliant reactions from Illeana Douglas as Enid’s art teacher); there are also some scathing lines, well delivered by Birch, that pinpoint Edna’s disaffection with what surrounds her: her father Bob Balaban’s relationship with the monstrously suffocating Maxine, the awful one-day job she gets at the cinema. Birch’s relationship with Buscemi is convincing too and, despite the age gap, never particularly creepy; when the inevitable arrives, it is handled sensitively and in a credible manner.
But: having set up interesting characters and posed interesting questions about where they are going in life, the second hour of the film (which is easily twenty minutes too long) entirely forgets how much fun the first hour was and follows Enid into depression as she feels ever more sorry for herself, failing to complete her art course, failing to connect with her father, running away from the relationship with Seymour (and indirectly causing his life to fall apart too).
The conclusion of the film features its own piece of moribund symbolism as Norman (Charles C. Stevenson Jr), the man perpetually waiting for a bus that never comes, gets his ride and Enid follows: not only is this dramatically unsatisfying – we have no idea where she’s going or what she will do when she gets there, and hold out little hope that she will feel less sorry for herself – but feels like a strange message to send to the target audience of young women*. Not that movies are in any respect to be taken as guardians of morality or responsibility, but the film presents going missing on a bus to who-knows-where as a perfectly valid route for escaping your problems, and fails to give any consideration to what Rebecca or Dad might think of their friend/daughter going missing.
Still, this is a viewpoint from a thirty-something male who expected the film’s comic vein to be present throughout and result in a denouement something akin to Election or even Napoleon Dynamite (which takes a few cues from Zwigoff’s film); and in a way I respect Ghost World for its decision to follow Enid’s story to its rather downbeat conclusion. However, with great performances, excellent music, some good lines and a really good story, I would have liked to see these characters given a happier ever after.
NOTES: There is, of course, an interpretation of the story in which Enid’s journey is distinctly a one-way trip. In which case, the message is stranger still.