I knew for sure this film was good when Enid put on the Buzzcocks very loudly. Even if the subsequent scene undermines this somewhat with her brief adoption of the Punk 1977 look 'but not modern punk, everyone knows that'.
Enid (over there on the right) and Rebecca are best friends who we see graduating from high school at the start, 'free at last' - from school, from all the obnoxious normal people with their pathetic stereotypical behaviours they so despise. Of course in their superciliousness they're pretty much a cliché themselves, of alienated teens. They're not easy to like, as we see them snigger at schoolfriends who greet them, apparently blithely innocent of the joking at their expense. And as we see them mocking the appearance of people they see around them, in the street and in places they hang out. The Ghost World is the aimless limbo they find themselves in, this time when they've suddenly been thrust into the adult, real world. For all their 'superiority' to everyone else, it turns out the others all have plans, while they are very unprepared. The film is about how they're not really that free at all, and about their drifting apart.
It's funny how they make sense as people when little is spelt out about their background. It's matter of fact, like it would be for them. Rebecca lives with her grandmother, but we mostly see Enid, living blankly with her father. He makes occasional appearances on the periphery of her daily life, rarely talking except when there's 'something to discuss', like a possible job - 'Look at me - I'm not even listening to a word you're saying'. She's rude in the face of most people's patient attempts to help her. His fault may be worse. His parenting philosophy such as it is seems to be a quasi-60s-ish one of non-interference, giving kids their head etc. Which can also mean not giving them any guidance. However, in the face of the absence of Enid's mother, reality may have forced this situation. And of course, Enid may just have some of this character in her.
Enid wasn't able to graduate straight away. It turns out she has to attend summer art classes for her final component, and these lead to some of the funniest scenes in the film - especially as here in the UK we're enjoying the annual Turner Prize, our top art award which tends to go to exactly the kind of conceptual artist which Roberta, perfectly played by Illeana Douglas, regards as 'higher art'. Unlike Enid's sketchbook, a journal of graphic drawings, which Roberta brackets with a drawing of 'the Mutilator' - a video game character drawn by a superbly blank-faced Phillip. Roberta goes on to draw attention to another piece, a collection of coat hangers twisted round each other, whose artist Margaret tells her that it's about a woman's right to choose. Margaret has clearly grasped how to pass the summer course. It's a crushing moment, not that Enid would ever admit it. We the audience can plainly see how good her drawings are. One suspects these scenes are deeply felt by Daniel Clowes, whose original Ghost World is of course a graphic novel.
Lots of teens feel like outsiders, in fact all of them feel that way at some point or other. Especially if they have any brain at all, and start considering the different kinds of conformity around them. Enid in particular is drawn to alternative types, but as the film progresses, is repelled by them as she realises that their alternative-ness is just a different kind of conformity. That '1977 Punk' get-up was a miskewed statement which only leads to her being even more disgusted with herself. She is drawn to a genuine 'outsider', Seymour, and is told explicitly by him that it's not a condition to be envied when it's all about failings in his make-up, but she carries on anyway, making him a personal project. She can't stand the idea of a world where a 'guy like him can't get a date'. She's afflicted by contradictory impulses, which often lead her to destroy the thing she is trying to achieve. Guilt follows, and she can't communicate it to anyone, not even Rebecca, who just can't see it the same way anymore. Rebecca's tired of Enid's apparent (posed) hatred of any boys they see. They both try out customer service jobs (shades of Clerks in these sequences); Enid gets fired within a day, but Rebecca is still there at the end. How can she stand it? 'Mostly, I just want to poison everybody', but as time goes on she's telling Enid that most of them are okay. Has her brain been washed? You might think so, at the point where Enid has made her tentative effort to move in with her, and she shows Enid the pull-down ironing board, saying apparently without irony, 'Isn't this great?' It's a pity in some ways that the film concentrates so much on Enid; Rebecca receives nearly as much attention as Enid, in the book. But it makes for a less confusing and more focussed story. I think, with Rebecca, you have someone who has found that being alternative all the time is very exhausting; being negative and finding fault with everyone isn't necessarily 'telling it like it is' either. She wants to move on. Much of real world life is mundane; her attitude by the end is, get over it.
The casting's perfect. Scarlett Johansson (unusually for a young actor, playing a teen older than herself - makes a change from the 30-year old teens of eg. Buffy) as Rebecca, Steve Buscemi as Seymour, and especially Thora Birch as Enid. I'm very glad she won the fight for that part, she looks exactly right, and is excellent. The film looks great, it portrays a generic US urban landscape without being too cartoony. Its visual (and aural) observation fit and support the characters and the story - one could make an endless list of the telling incidental details; the trousers on the pavement, the rocking horse toy, the mongoose... and one of the most significant, when Enid sees a man, a minor character, get on a bus.
Along with Almost Famous and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it's one of my favourite films this year. I think it is one of the best films of recent times and why it's been invisible in certain 'Year's Best' lists amazes me. It does have the fault of not being Hollywood mainstream. Still, it's funny, it's given us some memorable characters, and it has truth. It's not judgemental about them, and there's no conventional moral: they're a bunch of misfits and they screw up to varying extents. And remarkably for a film, they change. As for Enid, well, some simply carry on with their lot, and if it's hard, they persevere. Maybe she should have; it's sad to see the two girls apart. But she doesn't, she jacks it in, and that's it, and you kind of wish her well. That's an unknowable future, at the end. My abiding impression of her is from the very beginning, when she's dancing away to that 'insane 1960s East Indian production number'.
9 December 2001
This is the official site for Ghost World. It's Flash as usual and is decent enough, though it failed to work prefectly the time I looked at it. One or two pages seemed to be missing entirely - I'm sure that's a glitch, but why can't they ever design these sites in standard HTML? It's perfectly possible, without compromising too many ambitions. At any rate, the site makes a good job of emulating Daniel Clowes' style, and it has the film's haunting theme music playing over it.