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In “Ghost World,” everybody wants out, yet no one knows how to work the door. Nor do they want to. They’re more content to study the padding in the cell than to even consider an exit. That includes unapologetic and misunderstood loner Enid (Thora Birch) and her less tortured but still moody best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Two characters in search of an exit. And then there’s Norman, the man sitting on a bench waiting for the bus that doesn’t come. Until it does, pulling Enid’s world out from under her.
Heartbreaking, mysterious, and hilarious, “Ghost World,” Terry Zwigoff’s masterful tribute to miscreants and oddballs, hasn’t aged a day nearly two decades after its release. For anyone who ever felt out of place in high school, or in life, “Ghost World” was gospel in 2001. Enid brought a potent voice to generations of outsiders and weirdos, who’ve watched from the margins as life happens to just about everybody else.
While movies and TV have X-rayed the hows and whys of the end of a romantic partnership ad nauseam, few have so incisively examined the death of a friendship which, for many, hits harder. Graduation is over Rebecca, but not quite so over for Enid, who needs to take a summer “remedial art class for fuck-ups and retards” to get a passing grade. In the golden summer between high school and college or whatever comes next, Enid and Rebecca will slowly start to go their own way, with Rebecca craving normalcy and security and Enid searching for something perhaps more unstable and uncertain. The fact that Enid doesn’t know who she is is made obvious in her constant cycling through wardrobe and hair fads — the green hair, or the horn-rimmed glasses, or the leather jackets — to adorn a flimsy identity.
Yet as she drifts from Rebecca, Enid forges a weird kind of connection with outcast record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who’s at first a running joke for the girls who’ve plucked him out of a personals ad, until Enid becomes allured by his dweeby charm and encyclopedic knowledge of classic blues. The cardigan-wearing Seymour is perennially unlucky in love, so Enid vows to become his “own personal dating service,” at first less because she actually cares and more because she’s bored and needs a pet project. Rebecca, meanwhile, is looking at apartments and working in a coffee shop.
Rebecca and Enid plan to move in together after graduation, but it becomes increasingly complicated as one’s aspirations supersede the other, and it isn’t hard to guess whose. It’s painful to watch these two lifelong best friends come unglued, but it’s an all too relatable aspect of parting ways after senior year, when “I’ll call you” is a thing you say, but rarely do.
Adapted from the 1997 graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, “Ghost World” is indeed painfully melancholy, but let’s not forget how confidently light on its feet and hilarious it is. A few of the funniest bits: the ridiculous short film art teacher Roberta (Illeana Douglas) presents to her class of summer-school delinquents, “Nearer, Father, Nearer”; Enid and Rebecca’s away message for mental-ingrate cutie-pie Josh (Brad Renfro) after showing up at his vacant apartment (“We came by to fuck you, but you were not home. Therefore, you are gay. Signed, Tiffany and Amber”); the creep who answers trivia questions at Rebecca’s coffee shop in exchange for a free latte (“the Douglas pouch is located slightly below the uterus on a female”). And these are just from memory.
The film’s brazen humor is, simply, iconic and endlessly quotable, and populates a distinct world of weirdos and lowlifes. But ultimately, for anyone who’s bid adieu to a close friend, “Ghost World” is a wistful ode to a good thing, and also a reminder of why it’s time to move on.
“Ghost World” is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.