What I Learned from Watching . . . Ghost World

Ghost World (2004, dir. Terry Zwigoff), a dark comedy based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, is about many things, not the least of which is the pain of growing up.  Enid (played superbly by Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have just graduated high school and made the conscious decision not to attend college. One of the last teen-age pranks they pull is on nerdy loner, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), when Enid calls him pretending to answer a personal ad he’d put in the paper.  The joke’s on Enid, though, when she finds herself drawn to Seymour, much to Rebecca’s chagrin.  As the summer wears on and the demands of adulthood immediately begin to close in, Enid and Rebecca find themselves drifting apart. While Rebecca readily adjusts to finding a job and getting an apartment, Enid, caught in the gap between teen freedom and adult responsibility, just can’t.

(* I discuss a few outcomes in this post, but not in detail, so if you haven’t seen this and want to have no idea what happens, better see the movie first!:-)

Here are the three things I’ve learned from watching Ghost World:

1.       Sometimes a wicked sense of humor masks a very sensitive soul.

Enid is a world-class wise-cracker and oftentimes an outright smart-ass, but she owns it. She can both dish it out and take it, as evidenced by her handling of the obnoxious, anti-semitic guy who runs the comic book shop her and Rebecca frequent. But at times, even she is amazed at her own acute awareness of beauty in the oddest places, and it seems to break her heart.

At hers and Rebecca’s graduation party she spies one of their male class-mates, eating cake alone and watching the crowd, looking somewhat like dweeb. “Just think,” she says to Rebecca, “We’ll never see him again.” Rebecca expresses relief at that idea and turns away, but Enid continues watching him as the band plays “Where Is the Love?” Closer on Enid as she watches the guy, as if truly seeing him for the first time now that she knows chances are she really won’t see him again. High school is over. “It’s really sad if you think about it,” she says, to no one in particular.

Before she gets to know Seymour, she goes to a garage sale to see him again for the first time after hers and Rebecca’s joke where Enid, pretending to be the woman he was reaching out to in the ad, told him to meet her at a ‘50’s style diner, then watched him leave after he thought he’d been stood up. She knows who he is but he has no idea who she is when she buys a Blues record from him at the sale. He offers to put it in a bag for her to carry it home and she’s extremely touched by his kindness in spite of herself.

What Enid discovers over the summer (she does have to take a summer art class to actually get her hands on her high school diploma) is that she is an artist at heart, and that she’s a young woman with deeper feelings than she could ever admit to herself or anyone else.


2.       Sometimes friendships just run their course; it’s no one’s fault.

The fraying of Enid’s and Rebecca’s longtime friendship accelerates as Enid spends more time with Seymour but the signs that they’re starting to have less and less in common begin early on. At a coffee shop a young musician gives them fliers for his upcoming concert and Rebecca, thinking he’s cute, is looking forward to it. Enid makes some snide remarks about him and Rebecca clearly is getting frustrated with Enid’s apparent attitude toward anything Rebecca considers fun, like going out to meet guys, hear live music, go shopping for the upcoming apartment, picking out an apartment. . .  

Since there’s no college on the horizon for either of them, Rebecca gets a job at a coffee shop. Enid resists getting the kinds of jobs available to her (such as at Computer Depot) where her dad’s girlfriend has offered to help her find employment. Enid holds a yard sale to make a little money, putting all her old stuff from troll dolls to dresses out in the front yard. “I can’t believe you’re selling this,” Rebecca tells her. “Everything must go,” Enid insists. When people come up to buy some of the stuff, however, Enid finds reasons they shouldn’t buy it, from telling one woman that a dress is two hundred dollars because Enid lost her virginity in it, to simply telling one hipster that she’s decided the troll doll’s not for sale after all—it’s on the table by mistake. “I thought ‘everything must go,’” Rebecca quips.

Clearly Enid has changed her mind. She not ready to move on, nor give up these artifacts of her childhood and teen-hood. Rebecca wants to know if she’ll be ready to go shopping later but Enid says she doesn’t know—she has to bake a cake for Seymour’s birthday; she’ll call Rebecca later. Rebecca is clearly ticked off and Enid clearly has no interest in pursuing their plans; they’re heading in different directions as Rebecca knows what she wants and what she needs to do to get it, and Enid has no idea what she wants yet, just that she doesn’t want to be stuck in a routine job and bland apartment complex. She can’t yet articulate what she does want, and this further complicates things with Rebecca.

Even with this drifting apart, however, Rebecca is there for Enid near the end, and Enid understands and appreciates her concern. Enid’s no closer to being able to explain what it is she really wants next, and things will never be the same for her and Rebecca, but each accepts it and moves on.


3.       Loners will always be loners, unless they stick together. 

Seymour, a self-described “eccentric old crank” is fairly content with his life as it is, collecting old Blues records and obscure memorabilia. When we get to know him we realize that his reaching out to a woman he saw briefly one day by placing a personal ad to try and find her again was a very big step toward connecting with someone. He and Enid “get” each other but Enid still insists on trying to find a woman for Seymour even as she develops romantic feelings for him. He holds Enid at arm’s length because he doesn’t see what a young, hip girl would see in him and she does the same because acknowledging how she feels about Seymour would mean opening her heart to the kind of pain that could come from falling in love.

The woman Seymour was looking for when he placed the ad in the personals does finally find him and they go on a date, but while she’s nice enough, she and Seymour have nothing in common. After a romantic encounter with Enid, at long last, Seymour decides to take a chance on that becoming a real relationship, but frustratingly, Enid suddenly won’t talk to him, even though that in itself causes her the very pain she’s trying so hard to avoid. When she decides to pursue an opportunity for what she now realizes is her dream of going to art school, she finds that door closed and doesn’t know where to turn. Instead of turning back to Rebecca or Seymour, she remains a loner.  Seymour, confused, retreats into therapy, thrown for a loop by recent events, but ready to get back to his old life as soon as he can.

Every time I see this film, and I’ve seen it numerous times, I’m always let down by how two people who seem to understand and appreciate each other so much somehow end up apart. Maybe they’ll find their way back to each other, and maybe it’s just not meant to be. I like Enid and Seymour as separate characters, and I love the scenes when they’re together. But alas . . .

Ghost World is a rich and complex film. It’s a dark comedy, a thought-provoking character study, and conundrum dealing with human nature. I expect I’ll return to it in a future post!