Ghost World (2001)


A few years ago, I became increasingly fascinated with graphic novels – I discovered that there was a world way beyond newspapers “funnies” and superhero comic books. There was an entire world of alternative literature that just so happened to be visual rather than just the printed word. One figure that I found myself connecting with more than any other was Daniel Clowes, who has written some of the most complex and witty graphic novels of all time. I recently reviewed the film version of Wilson, which I seemed to have enjoyed more than most people – but it was never going to live up to the genius and brilliance of the best Daniel Clowes adaptation out there, the fantastic and utterly incredible Ghost World.

Ghost World, as a graphic novel, is truly iconic. The depths of exploring humanity that Clowes undertakes is truly magnificent, and his ability to understand a variety of themes – teenage life, being young, suburban hell and loneliness – is akin to the brilliance of many other authors, and as much as I dislike the book, it is impossible to not compare with something like The Catcher in the Rye. I have to say that Ghost World is a graphic novel that is both extremely cinematic in its execution, but also somehow impossible to have adapted perfectly. However, Terry Zwigoff seemed to believe that he could do it – and he actually pulled it off. Ghost World is pretty much a perfect film.

Ghost World is about Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), two cynical girls that just graduated high school and are ready to start the next chapter in their lives. However, it becomes clear that Enid isn’t entirely ready to enter into adulthood yet, and she hangs in limbo between teenager and adult as she wonders where to take her life, unlike Rebecca, who is ready to start her life and become a productive member of society. Enid starts to have a morbid fascination with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely, middle-aged man who she and Rebecca play a nasty prank on. Enid and Seymour become good friends, and they serve to distract each other from their crippling loneliness. Enid hides her attraction for the very unconventional Seymour by constantly trying to get him a date – and whether she really does have a crush on Seymour, or she just genuinely wants to believe someone like Seymour can get a date, and she wants to make the world a happier place, remains to be seen.

The graphic novel would always be a challenge to adapt because while there are no shortages of actresses that can play sarcastic, socially-awkward characters (a trope that has strangely been embraced too warmly in mainstream media nowadays), there are very few that could play a character as emotionally complex as Enid. Thora Birch was an exceptional choice for the role, and I assume she landed the role based on her performance in American Beauty, where she showed the same emotional range needed to play Enid. Birch commands the screen with her sarcastic but endearing performance – she is socially awkward, but not in the way that elicits pity. While this film does sell itself as a film about the friendship between the two girls, Birch really has the most impressive and important role, and it follows her journey through the awkward stage between being a child and an adult. Birch does such a wonderful job of playing Enid, and I am really sad that she hasn’t been given any equally great roles in the years since, mainly starring in B-movies and subpar thrillers.

The lack of success and recognition that has unfortunately defined Birch’s post-Ghost World career is the exact opposite for Scarlett Johansson, who has become one of the most recognizable and endeared actresses working today. She has carved herself a niche as an actress in action and genre films, and someone who is able to play very serious and powerful characters – which makes her performance in Ghost World something special and unique, because it is interesting to see Johansson playing an awkward teenager – and I honestly think I enjoy her in this film more than any other film she’s done. Quirky, awkward and often very funny, she may take a back-seat to Birch most of the time, but she is given several moments to shine, and when she does, she is absolutely wonderful.

The real reason to see Ghost World is for Steve Buscemi, who gives his greatest performance in this film. Buscemi is known for his creepy, slightly sinister characters such as his iconic performance in Fargo, but ultimately I do think he is given his best material in Ghost World. Seymour appears to be a sad-sack loser, a dork without any prospects of happiness and living a sad and pathetic existence – but Buscemi gives him so much depth. He is in his element here, playing a man who just wants to be liked and not cause too much trouble. Buscemi’s funny, self-deprecating performance is unlike anything we’ve ever seen him from, and while it may be easy to think of him as being a better actor for his bigger films, I can connect with Buscemi the most in Ghost World, because he is just so utterly fantastic at playing a character that appears to be a stereotype, but is actually far more fully-realized than he appears to be, all thanks to Buscemi’s dedicated performance.

Ghost World is a film about two very different, but connected, ideas – friendship and loneliness. While we are sold the idea that Enid and Rebecca are close friends at the beginning of the film, they seem to drift away, showing society’s tendency to try and convince people that the pursuit of money is the ultimate goal. As a result, Enid becomes lonely – but she isn’t the only one, as nearly every character in Ghost World experiences some kind of loneliness. We don’t get access to the lives of many of the characters in this film, but we can see how deeply complex each of them are, and how everyone is striving for the same thing – acceptance, and just to fee some emotional connection with someone. This is what makes the friendship between Enid and Seymour so touching – they are two hopelessly average, utterly lonely individuals, who see the other as absolutely extraordinary beyond compare. Their friendship is so touching, and even if it does veer off into the course of romantic attraction briefly (the only part of the film I didn’t like), it is one of the most wonderfully sweet portrayals of friendship ever put on film. Ghost World is a film composed of painfully mediocre characters, none of which have any massively heroic qualities, nor any actual villainous traits. Ghost World is a representation of life as it is, which is something Clowes and Zwigoff are wonderful at portraying.

Ghost World is a wonderful film. It is a personal favorite of mine, and I am really happy to have encountered it when I did, many years ago. It is a quirky, funny and very sweet film that carries some very serious messages of what it means to be in society. It is a film devoid of any major cinematic conflict or cliche, and it ultimately just becomes an idiosyncratic and highly enjoyable piece of cinema that knows exactly what it wants to be. The trio of central performances are fantastic, and Terry Zwigoff works hard to cry and give this film the distinctive look of Clowes’ work. Ghost World is a wonderful film and one that proves that independent cinema is truly powerful in showing real human themes.


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