Director Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” is the latest offering in the NAU film series exploring cinematic depictions of youth and coming-of-age films. Early on in “Ghost World” we meet best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) at their high school graduation. The event registers little emotion or sentimentality for either of them. They run from the auditorium, flip the bird at the school, and Enid stomps her graduation cap with her Dr. Martens.
They are free and have no solid plans for the future except to find jobs and rent an apartment together. But Enid is not yet free. She learns she needs to take a remedial art class over the summer in order to graduate. And as the film unfolds, Enid and Rebecca find their friendship becomes challenged as their lives begin to move in separate directions.
The landscape of “Ghost World” depicts a time and place before cell phones, texting and streaming movies, resembling the not-so-distant past of the 1990s. Video outlets rent VHS tapes. Convenience stores, sham nostalgia diners and fast food chains crowd the city.
As they wander empty streets and follow strangers in the unnamed city, Enid and Rebecca are bonded by their cynicism towards nearly everything and everybody surrounding them. It’s a world that reeks of fakery, inauthenticity and the pending disappointments of adult life, and they respond to it all with a practiced and sharp deadpan wit. It is only when
Enid meets Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a middle-aged collector of old 78 rpm vinyl records, that she finds a glimmer of something that feels sincere and honest. He sells her a recording of “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James and the old blues song puts a spell on her that, for a moment, pries her loose from her malaise. Eventually, Enid’s relationship with Seymour also rattles her relationship with Rebecca.
The film is based on Daniel Clowes’s comic book Ghost World published during the mid-1990s. Zwigoff and Clowes adapted the comic and co-wrote the script. Their screenplay earned an Academy Award nomination in 2002. It also earned Golden Globe nominations for Birch and Buscemi.
Like many films about teenage rebellion and the agonies of growing up, “Ghost World” targets the conformity, complacency and concessions of mainstream American existence as threats to individualism and identity. Enid tries to keep it all at bay with her retro punk outfits, dyed hair and caustic commentary. She can’t bear that Rebecca is selling coffee at Starbucks-like franchise and Enid can’t hold down a job selling popcorn at the cineplex. In many ways, it’s the chase for the real thing that fires Enid’s engine. But actually catching it only seems to bring on more discontent.
If there’s a ghost to be found in “Ghost World,” maybe it’s the spectral presence of Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, published half a century before Zwigoff’s film was released.
Enid’s alienation, angst and premature dissatisfaction with life beyond high school certainly seem a modern echo of Holden’s disdain for “phonies,” and the clumsy and awkward sense of rebellion and loss that really carry so many coming of age films. Here outcasts and marginal characters are the heroes, and this is part of the reason why “Ghost World” remains a cult classic.