Ghost World (2001)

Based on the comic book of the same name written by Terry Zweigoff, Ghost World is a coming-of-age story different from most similar films you’ll see come out of Hollywood. It doesn’t adhere to genre conventions, it takes a different direction in its story, it contains far more wit and satire than most movies are allowed, and it ends more ambiguously than these types of films generally do. All of that might upset some viewers who are used to formula and happy to accept it, but if you’re looking for something different, this might be one to check out.

Ghost World begins with high school graduation. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have finally entered the real world. They’re not popular people; they smirk at everything, doing so with more snark than the body should be capable of producing. Their plan is simple: they’re going to get jobs, rent an apartment together, and live happily ever after. They spend their free time making fun of their surroundings, listening to music, wandering, and stalking interesting people.

One such person winds up being a loner named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), whom they notice after they see an ad placed in the local paper claiming he had a “moment” with a blonde woman at the airport but never got her number. He hopes she’ll see the ad and call him. Enid calls, tells him to meet her at the diner, and then they watch him get “stood up” before proceeding to follow him. Enid winds up befriending him after learning of his interest in classic records and perhaps because, like her, he feels alienated from the rest of the world.

The story progresses unconventionally from there and contains many interesting performances, characters, subplots, jokes, and locations. The film primarily focuses on Enid and her ventures, but Rebecca does get a significant amount of screen time — just not enough to call the film a two-person show. Enid is most definitely the lead, and that’s a good decision because she’s the most interesting of the two girls.

A large part of the success of Ghost World comes from Thora Birch’s deadpan delivery and her believability in this sort of role. She was pretty great in a similar role in American Beauty, but this film has that character amped up even further. She’s been given great lines to say, but the delivery is what sells them. You can believe her as a the lost teen in a world she can’t understand or grow to like. Her progression over the film’s duration isn’t as you’d expect, either. Often times, calling something a “coming-of-age” film is almost a spoiler; it’s not in this case.

Ghost World is really funny. Its comedic style is dark, deadpan, and observational, often all at the same time. Its two leads hate the world, or at least are want to give off the appearance that they hate the world, and therefore they’re given plenty of chances to make fun of it and the people in it. The film does the same. Note how it treats the high arts. You’ll be laughing for a good chunk of Ghost World. It’s more of a drama than a comedy but its humor is strong enough that it works as a comedy almost as well as it does as a compelling drama.

It is a very good drama, too. If you’ve ever felt alone in the world — alienated from all the conformists and weirdos — then you’ll be able to relate to the characters in this film. While they’re fresh out of high school, this is sort of a universal feeling that one can have at almost any age; it’s not exclusive to older teenagers. As a result, relatability is something that Ghost World never struggles to have. The characters aren’t one-note, either, and while their growth is debatable — although that might just be the point — they never stop being interesting.

I have little doubt that a re-watch of Ghost World would prove just as, if not more, entertaining than an initial viewing. Each scene has been so well-crafted and the screenplay is so strong that I’m sure there are small details that get missed the on the first go-round. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a second watch right after the first, but after it’s settled for a little while it’ll be a good film to revisit.

On a re-watch, for instance, you’ll probably be even more appreciative of the supporting cast. While Thora Birch will capture your attention the first time, on the second you’ll notice how strong a performance Steve Buscemi turns in. How isolated and unassuming, and how you feel sorry for him because of the performance, not because of how the character is written. Or how perfectly Scarlett Johansson works against Birch. This type of thing can easily be overshadowed on a single viewing, but would come out better the second time.

Ghost World is a really great film. It contains a fantastic cast, a good amount of humor, strong drama, relatable characters and situations, and it plays against, not with, conventional coming-of-age stories. It’s the type of film for people who are looking for something different, just like its lead characters. This is a brilliant slice of life, and I highly recommend checking it out. It’ll be good for more than a single viewing.

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