When I first saw the 2001 film Ghost World, I was just out of high school myself, filled with the kind of ironic detachment that prevents main character Enid (Thora Birch) from connecting with the rest of humanity. Ghost World spoke to me. Everyone sucks, and the worst sin that one can commit is showing real emotion, being honest in all facets of ones self.
Best friends Enid and Rebecca (a very young Scarlett Johannson, clearly a star in the making) start the movie out with similar levels of detachment, mocking a bubbly, energetic girl who aspires to be an actress. Life is a series of odd scenes to observe, and roll ones eyes at. They’re too smart to fit in, not world-wise enough to realize that everyone else is just trying their best to fit in and they could too. Enid and Rebecca are proto-hipsters, for lack of a better term.
Of course, their paths diverge. On first watch, it was Rebecca who was the character who I struggled to connect with. Enid maintains her detachment, stays true to herself, refusing to attempt to connect to the world. Meanwhile, Rebecca changes, getting a shitty job that forces her to interact with shitty customers. It sucks, but she puts up with it. That’s what grown-ups do.
In one scene, Enid tries out a similar job – but we know that she’s never going to cut it. She can’t put up with the bullshit of others. A mundane job selling popcorn at a movie theater is akin to the seventh circle of hell. And the last person she can put up with the bullshit of is her best friend. It’s no spoiler to say that the two grow apart.
Enid connects with an older man, Seymour (Steve Buscemi). Their relationship is unlikely at first, but grounded in a connection over art that they both find meaningful. As Enid takes an art class at her school, she learns to connect to art and her true self through Seymour, a man who has abandoned trying to connect with the rest of the world in lieu of sheltering himself in his collection of music and old trinkets. Of course, Seymour has some growing to do too.
Ghost World is a film about coming of age, but director Terry Zwigoff creates a film that is doggedly determined to undermine cliche. Though Enid, Seymour, Rebecca, and many of the other characters in the film, are all sometimes depicted in humorous ways, there are levels of nuance to each character. Every character has layers that make them feel real and grounded and lovingly thought out.
It’s also no coincidence that the movie is seemingly obsessed with artifacts of bygone times – Seymour’s room filled with records and old trinkets, a ’50s diner that has an old-time radio blasting rap music, a beautiful image of Enid dancing wildly to an old Bollywood movie, an old racist advertisement for a restaurant chain that has since been replaced, and of course yard sales where we are reminded that we can’t quite ever cut the cord on things that we’ve grown attached to. Nostalgia’s a bitch.
For Enid, attachment is hard, which makes letting go of things all the harder. Just as Enid can’t bear to part with a doll or dress at her yard sale, she also can’t bear to let go of friendships, of tightly held personas, of the detachment that so thoroughly defined her personality.
Ghost World is a challenging movie, one that makes you think deeply about yourself, about passion and life and fitting in. In a way, it’s a timeless masterpiece, one that will continue to connect with people of a certain age for generations. It’s a movie that’s stuck with me, and I think is really going to remain a part of me.
Rebecca: This is so bad it’s almost good.
Enid: This is so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again.