Ghost World begins with the high school graduation of best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Life (including a graduation ceremony sponsored by Tropicana and Dunkin’ Donuts) has left the girls decidedly cynical. Much too cool for school, they’ve decided to forego college in favor of finding jobs and moving in together.
Ghost World (based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes) catches Enid and Rebecca in that fleeting instant between childhood and adulthood when possibilities seem truly unlimited. Like two peas in a misfit pod, they struggle to balance their desire to remain true to their loner roots with the conflicting urge to become active participants in an adult society that is more accepting of eccentrics. For the first time ever, they see the opportunity to join the human race. Their relationship falters as Rebecca leaps at the chance while Enid hesitates.
A heartless prank brings born-loser Seymour (Steve Buscemi) into the girls’ lives. Unlike Enid, he doesn’t see the lonesome life as “rebellious” – he knows he’s a dork and that his few friends are, too. As her friendship with Rebecca deteriorates, Enid forges a new one with Seymour, ostensibly to help him find a girlfriend. It’s obvious, though, that she finds comfort in the presence of an adult who is not only stranger than she is, but is apparently comfortable about it.
Ghost World is filled with laugh-out-loud moments. Though similar to films like Heathers and Welcome to the Dollhouse, it avoids the exaggeration of the former and the total bleakness of the latter. Director Terry Zwigoff, whose last film, Crumb, delved merrily into the peculiar world of cartoonist R. Crumb, here gleefully skewers our disposable-consumerist culture, taking waggish potshots at strip-malls, oil company “ecology”, frat-bar R&B, comic-book culture, retail chains, and the art community, among countless others.
Birch is sublime as the conflicted Enid, and Buscemi brings a truthful sensitivity to his role as the beleaguered Seymour. Illeana Douglas deserves special kudos as an hilariously passionate art teacher. The film looses its footing – slightly – near the end as it trades cynicism for sentimentality towards Enid and her situation. Naturally, Enid learns there’s more beyond her ranch-home world than she ever imagined. Likewise, she realizes she doesn’t know nearly as much as she once believed. Still, the movie manages to remain both sidesplitting and haunting; an impressive feat. Like its protagonist, Ghost World searches in vain for beauty amid the breathtakingly ugly scenery of suburban America.