Nobody’s planning much right now circa March 2020, but it would be nice to think that the 20th anniversary of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World next year might bring some attention to a neglected film. Adapted from a comic book by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World managed the difficult trick of getting Academy Award recognition (in the adapted screenplay category) and yet barely making a dent in the collective consciousness. A cult movie was born, and while Ghost World nimbly ducks accusations of ersatz geek chic, it’s still hard to pinpoint exactly what goes wrong and right here.
Clowes admitted that the last twenty pages of the script ended up not making the final product, and Ghost World is front-loaded plot-wise in a way that probably didn’t satisfy casual customers. But the route forward is paved with snark, and an off-kilter view of modern life that doesn’t feel dated at all. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) graduate from their Californian high school without much fuss; they’re underwhelmed by the experience, and by pretty much all aspects of life around them. Rebecca has the usual crushes to content with, but Enid strikes up an unconventional friendship with a shew-ish middle aged man (called Seymour, inevitably, and played by Steve Buscemi, even more inevitably). Enid and Seymour bond over 78 records and distain for mainstream culture, but the experience tests the bonds between Enid and Rebecca.
Aside from a striking visual aesthetic, with empty streets and simple, effective frames, Ghost World has plenty to commend it, not least decent supporting roles for Illeana Douglas and Bob Balaban. And while Rebecca gets short shrift outside of her badinage with Enid, Enid herself is a three-dimensional creation, a role-model for malcontents, capable of great cruelty and kindness at the same time, without a firm notion of where these emotions are coming from. The perennially under-used Birch does a great job here, creating something iconic from Enid’s vacillations, and she’s the X factor that makes Ghost World worth another look.
Teen movies are ten-a-penny to be sure, but Ghost World’s dissection of teenage restlessness is even more prescient now than it was at the time. Viewers may be attracted to see Johansson in an early role (she’s fine), but Ghost World’s attitude is a one-off; John Malkovich produces, Todd Solondz visited the set, and it’s one of the best films made by middle-aged men about what women might feel when confronted by the comic, tragic un-loveliness of middle-aged men themselves.