Rebecca: "Oh, face it, you just hate every single guy on the face of the Earth."
Enid: "That's not true. I just hate these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers."
Based on the comic strip by Daniel Clowes (featured in his comic series Eightball from 1993-1997) and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, 1994, Art School Confidential, 2006), this is THE film for the counter-culture crowd, if ever there was one.
Of course, the term counter-culture is hotly debated in the context of today's society. Some would place the films protagonists Enid (Thora Birch, never better) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) as part of the 'subculture' or simply label them 'hipsters'. However you want to define them (and all the definitions hold weight, but for the sake of this article I will apply counterculture) Ghost World is undeniably a unique, opinionated, darkly sarcastic piece of work, both deep and subtle as well as bitingly satirical of modern culture. It's a film specifically in tune with a crowd more in need of a voice than ever, no matter how harsh that voice may be. In the nine years since it was released it has been forgotten. But it shouldn't be. Because it's a teen art masterpiece.
Enid and Rebecca are both outsiders in a town full of morons (according to them anyway). They are best friends held together by their cynicism, sarcasm and contempt for their peers. They seek out the weirdos and loners of the world and spend their days wandering the streets of an unnamed town (the ghost world of the title) until they play a cruel prank on Seymour (Steve Buscemi). Eventually Enid, the stronger-opinionated of the friends, is drawn to Seymour and learns that they have more in common than she expected. As they bond she grows further away from Rebecca...
Even the title of this teen art dramedy holds more than meets the eye. In the comic book the words 'ghost town' were graffitied on various walls by an unknown character, and served as the title for each new strip. In the film Zwigoff's own visual style allows us to enter the ghost world and he presents as many complexities as Clowes' cult comic: are Enid and Rebecca the only ones living in a land of the dead, a metaphor for their superiority amongst the minions of losers, wasters, morons and "extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemians" that inhabit their world? Are they trapped by their cynicism and unwillingness to conform? An elitist fantasy and a jab at the counterculture all at once? Or is the film just highlighting the truth that we really have become that dumb, all like sheep following the latest trend? Interestingly it's the collectors, cinephiles, geeks and hipsters that will grasp the film and be behind the emotions and feelings that would alienate said sheep, but the sheep make for the most interesting audience. A modern audience looking for comedy along the lines of American Pie (Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz 1999) will be met by a direct slap to the face, a sharply drawn and dry criticism of the very culture they belong to. Whether they realise this or not will only add to the films own self-amusement. The people who are irritated by the film, the ones who find it obnoxious or elitist are the very ones the point they're missing is about. But they are also the perfect audience and to think they'd for once be sharing the cinema with its true crowd is a delight. It's rare that a film will have the audacity to invite audiences in and then insult them to their face. It's a work of genuis.
But as briefly mentioned earlier, the film also presents a cynical counterbalance for its characters way of life. Enid is so disaffected, so lonely and angry at the world that she ultimately becomes the films biggest loser. Rebecca has a firmer grasp of life and and knows the importance of getting a job and renting an apartment. In a key scene the friends go shopping together - Rebecca is thrilled by blue plastic cups whereas Enid can't even attempt to contain her impassivity. They may both be members of the 'lost youth' but there is a distinct difference between them, and depending on whether you're a hipster or a sheep, you'll cheer one or the other. As a study of friendship its perfect - another key scene sees them at their graduation party when 'it girl' Melora (Debra Azar) assaults them with the threat of meeting up over summer. Enid dryly retorts "yeah, that'll definitely happen." Melora spots more friends in the background and before she leaves, gestures excitedly with her hands in the most whimsically girly way possible. Enid and Rebecca turn to each other and in perfect sync mimic said gesture. They're wholly in tune with each other and the scenes at the party perfectly encapsulate their perfect bond. Even if you fail to be charmed by them their antics are unique in modern cinema - they're not interested in sports, drinking beer and going to parties - they find solace in the weirdos of newspaper ads, 50s diners and sex shops. They're the saviors of their own world, where life's little surprises aren't enough - and the awfulness of modern culture is the axis on which they turn.
Of course Ghost World has a larger ambition and despite its cynicism and criticism it has a strong heart. As a biting dissection of consumer culture, art, interpretation and society it's totally cutthroat - after visiting Seymour for the first time (at a garage sale where Enid buys a blues record) they comment on how sad he looked. Rebecca matter-of-factly declares "yeah, he should totally just kill himself." To these girls words are a weapon and Enid has a particularly bright vocabulary. She's like D-Fens (Michael Douglas' crusading businessman in Falling Down, Joel Schumacher, 1993) for the counterculture crowd. She's the arthouse avenger of societies ills and instead of grabbing a gun she wields her tongue. But despite this, the beating heart is what leaves a lasting impression. The hipster angle entertains and the friendship keeps you hooked but the subtle love story that begins in the middle third of the film will be what keeps you coming back for more.
Enid and Seymour begin a completely fractured relationship - she can't stand a world where this guy, an avid collector and music fanatic, can't get a date and he begins to hang on her companionship. She sees his world as her world and together they bond over blues music and their hopelessness in society. Seymour also seems to have a resentment for that society, angrily shouting at a woman and her kids crossing a road too slowly and correcting a potential interest on her definition of 'blues'. Eventually Enid's prank comes round to backfire and Seymour enters a relationship with Dana (Stacey Travis), much to her disappointment. Deep down Seymour knows that relationship can't work and one night Enid visits him in tears and they sleep together. It's the moment you've been waiting for but like the rest of the film it's dealt with realistically without any Hollywood sentimentality. Enid knows it was a mistake but Seymour starts to obsess over her moving in with him. He ends his relationship with Dana as Enid further struggles with her identity. Her application to an art school is rejected after a racial controversy and she decides that she has to sort herself out. One night she sees an old bus coming for Norman (Charles C. Stevenson Jr.), the old man "she can always rely on." The next night, in the final scene, she packs her bags and rides the bus out of town. The final shot sadly lingers on the bus riding away. The future is uncertain for Enid but some fans read a suicide metaphor into the way this climax is presented - it's certainly not hard to imagine and the comic book, which ends on a similar note, gives even more subtle nods to the idea. We can only imagine Seymour's sadness if this is the case, but we hope the lonely soul can find happiness again. Either way, when Seymour calls her tomorrow she won't be there. And in this world, each other might be all they have. It's an ending totally open to interpretation, but it always sinks the heart. A beautiful forgotten masterpiece...seek it out, or be a sheep.