By Afra Nariman
Ghost World (2001)
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Stars: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi
A story about two friends, Enid (played by Thora Birch) who is a neo-cool, outsider and her friend Rebecca (played by Scarlett Johansson), who both just graduated High School and set out to begin their lives. As they observe the world around them, they each cope with it in different ways. Enid meets an offbeat, middle-aged vinyl collector and Jazz enthusiast (played by Steve Buscemi) and completely sympathizes with him, relates to him and begins to look up to him. As the weeks after graduating go by, Enid and Rebecca’s friendship begins to change as they each come to terms with what they want out of life.
From the surface, this film seems like it’s a teen-comedy. It’s about two teenage girls and it’s funny — so yeah, I guess you could call it a “teenage comedy.” But, you would be underselling Ghost World by a ton if you were to end the description right there. It’s also a story about freedom and what to do with it; it’s a story about growing up and trying to find your way in life; and it’s also about trying to fit in and find an identity. It’s about all those things and everything that makes those things unexpectedly hard.
The film follows the story of two recent High School graduates as they enter the real world and experience the freedom that they have been waiting their entire lives for. Enid and Rebecca have always been best friends and have decided together that neither will be going to college. Instead they will get an apartment together, get jobs and just live. Rebecca couldn’t be more excited to get started. But Enid has second thoughts that naturally arise. She’s an outsider, a misfit. She doesn’t like most people. For the most part, Rebecca had always kind of agreed with Enid on these things, but is now beginning to become more “normal.” Things begin to change for Enid when she meets an offbeat, middle-aged misfit — Seymour, who becomes Enid’s friend and role model.
As the film goes on, Enid realizes how difficult growing up is, how freedom doesn’t always mean easy. Early in their friendship, Seymour and Enid have a conversation that cements their similarities in thinking and their status as outsiders in society;
“I can’t relate to 99% of humanity”– Seymour
“Well I can’t relate to humanity either but I don’t think it’s completely hopeless.”– Enid
“Well it’s not completely hopeless for you.”– Seymour
This exchange signifies this idea of hope that isn’t always recognizable for anyone who doesn’t follow society’s standard, who lives outside of their expectations and who are inherently different. Seymour is a middle-aged man and doesn’t really have many friends. He’s alone. He never could fit in. Enid was enthralled by Seymour because she was beginning to see herself in him. He was unapologetically himself, as was she. Throughout the film, Enid is rightfully reluctant to change for others.
Seymour was never able to find others who he could relate to. This idea that Seymour believes it is hopeless for him to still find that sense of community and companionship, but that Enid still has hope, speaks to the nature of youth. When you’re a misfit, it is inherently difficult to fit in, but it isn’t impossible. When you’re young, it’s your responsibility to chase your passions and ultimately do what you want. Don’t grow up trying to fit in with people you naturally don’t relate to; go find where you do belong.
The emotional peak of the film comes when Enid realizes that she can’t count on any of the people in her life. Seymour begins to avoid her because of the relationship he has started with a woman who Enid helped Seymour meet. Her father is marrying his former ex-girlfriend who Enid despises. And Rebecca is starting to move on and live her own life. In a pit of her own misery, Enid feels that hopelessness that she previously did not. It is in this moment that the film offers us the idea of the natural necessity of human connection and a sense of community. Enid returns to Seymour and pours out her heart to him. She also goes to Rebecca and claims that she actually does want to still move in with her. Feeling lost, she just wanted people to be with. Being alone in a world that seems so unlike you can be hard and the thought of it, unbearable.
A metaphorically powerful moment in the film comes near the end. Throughout the story, there was one constant in Enid’s life: The old man who waits at a bus stop every single day for a bus that’s line no longer drives that way. He is constantly waiting for a bus that would never come — until it does. Down in the dumps, Enid is walking in the streets when she sees the bus stop in front of the bench where the old man is sitting and has been religiously waiting. This level of persistence as exhibited by the old man’s determination to come wait for his bus every single day (even if it is because he’s old and forgetful), signifies the importance of staying true to yourself and what you believe in, and if you are able to do so for long enough, eventually your time will come and you will get what you want in life. For the old man, it was to get on that bus. For Enid, it is to fit in but still be able to be herself. Enid seems to receive that message from this sight and goes on to pack her bags and do what she has always expressed a desire to do: don’t tell anybody, just go to some random place in the world. She learns that she shouldn’t sacrifice what she wants just to not be alone. Although it’s scary, she sees that hope that Seymour talked about. She takes a risk and goes on to find herself and her place.
Often times we rush to grow up, we ache for that freedom, but fail to realize the confusion and the sense of feeling lost that may accompany it. Ghost World is about a journey of self discovery. It’s a relatable coming-of-age film for anybody who doesn’t follow the standards set by society — anybody who is a misfit or an outsider. Enid feels misunderstood and separate from almost everybody around her. She finally finds Seymour who understands her, but the two misfits are separated by age. Enid realizes that she has to take initiative in her life to be able to find her place and her people. For much of the film, she doesn’t really care about anything, as evidenced by her approach to her art class; but eventually she begins to care and with that comes pain. Still, the film emphasizes the importance of persevering and staying true to yourself, even if it’s hard to leave your comfort zone, because it will eventually pay off.
Ghost World is hilariously immersive. It’s grounded in it’s comedic take on a story of youth and freedom. It’s offbeat, random, sometimes strange, but genuinely deep and meaningful as well. From the very start, the film engages us with a certain level of energy and we stay connected to the story and the characters for its entirety. The film also provides some social critique of the standard, carbon copies of people that roam the world, making it hard for anybody who doesn’t adhere to that standard, who breaks away and attempts to blaze their own path — their own world filled with their own dreams and passions — to fit into the world that is governed by the majority’s standards.
The entire cast was incredible, as was the writing/directing. Birch, Buscemi and Johansson each played an extremely believable and relatable character. Ghost World will powerfully speak to anybody who considers themselves a misfit or an outsider, but will appeal to almost anybody. With it’s combination of offbeat and satyrical humor, emotional drama, and meaningful discourse; this film is both a classic “teenage comedy” and an insightful coming-of-age story about youth and freedom. It delivers a deep existential message of identity and of finding your place in the world, when you just don’t seem to fit into it. This film works on so many levels and you can watch it for an array of different reasons.