Ghost World tells the story about a loner kid who doesn’t fit in any of the conventional boxes of teenage life and so she embraces her idiosyncrasies and weirdness, using it as a weapon to keep people away. Her weaponized weirdness draws precious few people in and keeps all the “normals” out. We meet Enid (Thora Birch) at the moment of her greatest triumph at her high school graduation. She has seemingly survived the hellish environment that is high school and stands on the edge of a grand new beginning.
The problem of course she has no idea what exactly this new beginning is. Her exultation at graduation is short-lived as she is held back for a summer remedial art class. Her best friend and high-school partner in crime Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) is showing the shocking signs of embracing normalcy. And as the previously rock-solid partnership between them devolves the movie wisely leaves it unclear if the fault lies with Rebecca or Enid. Is Rebecca insecure and selling out to a lifestyle framed by a steady job and all the conventional benefits it entails? Or is Enid merely stuck in a rut, trying to play by the same rules that got her through high school? In any case the friends slowly drift apart, leaving Enid all the more isolated.
To fill that isolation she develops a relationship with the much older Seymour (Steve Buscemi, in perhaps his best movie role), a loner like herself who has worked anonymously in the corporate offices of a local fried chicken chain and finds cold solace in the innumerable 78 rpm records that he has collected all these years. Seymour first enters Enid’s life as the victim of her cruel prank and is her object of ridicule. Her feelings towards Seymour eventually evolve to pity and then to something like admiration as the two lonely souls find in each other kindred spirits. Of course, while a lesser director would at this point push the two towards a conventional romantic arc Terry Zwigoff instead pursues something more interesting instead as he realizes that what draws these two to each other has much more to do with their respective identity crises rather than any romantic entanglements.
The question of identity and authenticity consumes Enid because she lives in the artifice of modern suburbia. It is the town in which “authentic” ’50s diners play ’80s disco music on the jukebox without noticing any contradiction. It is the town in which the Masterpiece Video store employees cannot even begin to comprehend the irony that they have no either who Federico Fellini is. It is the town where “authentic” blues is dressed up to sound as generic as any other over-produced music out there. There is plenty for her to push back against – but she can’t figure out what she’s pushing toward. Similarly, but many further years down the road, Seymour rules himself out as an object worthy to be loved mostly because he can hardly stand himself and his own interests, his own idiosyncrasies effectively isolating him from “normal” people.
Eventually it all falls apart as it inevitably must because willful regression has a way of coming back to haunt you. Seymour who has spent close to two decades willfully secluding himself finds that his newfound adventures Enid prods him into back to the larger world do not come without severe pitfalls. And Enid that her intentional abrasiveness that she has cultivated all these years has painted her into a corner. Fortunately Zwigoff wisely understands these newfound discoveries of each character’s flaws cannot be overcome by your typical uplifting ending. As Roger Ebert notes the movie is “smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible.”
It is no wonder that I fell in love with this movie a good decade or so ago. Yet in revisiting it this time I’m struck by how much my allegiances has shifted in the intervening years. My original allegiance (well fine… call it a crush) was definitely with the misunderstood Enid as she protested against a plastic world. Originally I was frustrated with the ending because I so desperately wanted her wonderful weirdness and her acerbic nature to win the day. I wanted her to pick up the small lessons that she’d learned, apply it, and for us to get the final scene of her triumphantly thriving. But now a decade later (and a decade older) I’ve learned that sometimes when you’ve painted yourself in a corner, the best way to learn your lesson and grow is simply to walk away. And so while Ghost Story’s ending is not the easiest to swallow, it is at least true. And a decade later, I’ve realized just how perfect an end cap to this near-perfect movie it truly is.
p.s. If you ever want a glimpse as to how most of my film conversations go view this (start at 0:59).