director: Terry Zwigoff
starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi
running time: 111 mins
I think only stupid people have good relationships.
“I liked her so much better when she was an alcoholic crack addict. She gets in one car wreck and all of a sudden she’s Little Miss Perfect and everyone loves her.” Ghost World is full of insightfully cynical observations from the persepective of two alienated teens, trapped and ostracized by the power of a group perception that rejects them. Sarcasm and wit are their weapons against the superficiality with which they are surrounded.
Rebecca [Scarlett Johansson] and Enid [Thora Birch] are two high school graduates who have banded together through never fitting in with the rest of the crowd. Hollywood is rife with films about such misunderstood teenagers, but Ghost World is refreshingly original in its lack of the patronising suggestion that these outcasts must be transformed into beautiful popular prom queens in order to succeed. Neither does the film celebrate stupidity or an obsession with sex, being “cool” or appearances. Indeed, these two girls have long ago given up pursuit of “coolness”, and instead embrace all things dysfunctional and weird in a form of rebellion. They begin to realise, however, that this attitude is a predefined cliché itself.
Rebecca seems to grasp their situation much faster, and is motivated by the desire to settle down in an apartment of her own, leading to a more flexible outlook as she swiftly finds a job to gain her independence in search of that end goal. Enid refuses to compromise however, dying her hair green rather than appear respectable when they look for apartments. The film gains further depth with the introduction of Seymour [Steve Buscemi], a fanatical collector of 78 rpm blues records. Naturally Rebecca finds him a complete loser, but Enid is drawn to him because of his obsessiveness. Unable to relate to boys of her own generation, she is subconsciously enthralled be Seymour because at least he has a passion for something, although his own view of himself is very different, “You think it’s healthy to obsessively collect things? You can’t connect with other people so you fill you life with stuff.” She attempts to set him up with a girlfriend with disastrous consequences when she is finally successful, but Seymour provides the only adult figure whom she is able to look up to in any way. Her dazed father is a flake, dating an old girlfriend whom Enid hates, while her art teacher is an elitist fake. This isn’t so much about Enid’s world, as her road to discovery which has abruptly hit a dead end, a refreshing change from the romanticized Hollywood teen flick.
The main performances are brilliant, with Birch and Johansson allowing us to instantly understand their characters, despite their surreal quirkiness. We never need to question their intelligence, yet throughout they seem detatched and awkwardly out of place from everything around them, although Rebecca slowly adapts and we see the two friends drift apart, highlighted starkly in a simple piece of dialogue discussing a customer at the coffee shop in which Rebecca works, Enid excitedly voicing, “He is so cool!” to which Rebecca flatly responds, “No. He’s not.” Buscemi is perfectly cast as the obsessive Seymour, especially when complaining about the rest of the world (does anyone bitch quite so well as he?). The only problem with Buscemi’s portrayal is that it may sometimes hit a little too close to home, especially for a film or music buff who may find themselves unwillingly glancing over at their own collection as Seymour introduces Enid to his.
Ghost World was originally an underground comic, which made it prime material for director Zwigoff, who’s previous film was about underground cartoonist R. Crumb. The most interesting thing about the filming style is the bold palette of primary colours, which creates a very comic book feel. Indeed, with the short snippets of sharp dialogue, one can almost imagine the speech appearing in bubbles.
The most startling image of this film, however, is the old man sitting on the bench of an old bus route, forever waiting for a bus which will never come. And yet it is this relentless figure who in the end provides the catalyst that forces Enid to get on with her own life.