Ghost World, the movie, is now two years older than the characters in Ghost World. That may not seem like much to you or I, but to Enid and Becky, the two recent high school grads played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, it’s a gulf with the other side shrouded in question marks. Terry Zwigoff’s film, based on Daniel Clowes’s comic, is one of the greatest showcases of the mixture of exhilaration and dread that comes with inchoate adulthood. And it’s certainly among the funniest.
There are few performances as perfect as Thora Birch’s handling of Enid, the acid-tongued outsider frantically trying on new personas with each scene change. She’s unsure of who she wants to be (punk rocker in green hair and leather, vintage ‘40s glamour girl, weirdo in a so-dorky-maybe-it’s-cool dinosaur T-shirt) but she’s certain of what she doesn’t want: to be normal. Not that there’s worry of that.
That’s not quite the case with Becky, a 15-year-old Scarlett Johansson weaponizing her natural deep voice and mature visage to play a few crucial years older. When we first meet her, she and Enid are puzzle pieces snapped together, walking in lockstep, rolling their eyes in unison at their clueless classmates. But look closely and you’ll see cracks in their relationship that, by the end of the film, will become a familiar chasm to anyone who remembers old chums and says “oh, we drifted apart.”
At the diner, where the waiter with the most hyperactive hairdo since Pat Metheny takes their order, Becky, dripping with at least eight layers of irony, deadpans “I want to make love to him.” Enid threatens to tell him she said that, and if Becky doesn’t reach out and cover her mouth, she’ll do it, too. That’s the difference between them; Enid is eager to take chances, even if they are poorly thought through. Becky may not be ready to accept it yet, as she still considers herself an outsider, but she wants to play it safe.
Who will be in a happier place in two years? Becky, surely, with a job, her own apartment, and maybe a few college credits to her name. Enid, however, will be wandering around making bad decisions, doodling in her sketchbook, and hooking up with more disasters like Seymour.
Which brings us to Seymour (Steve Buscemi). I think everyone in high school runs into their own personal Seymour. He’s that older person who seems, at first, to have the coolest life imaginable. He has the freedom to live his own way. In Seymour’s case, it’s to hole up with a flatulent roommate, obsess over old blues records, and, for reasons he can’t even articulate, focus on how culture steamrolls over past injustices. Seymour rejects modernity in ways not commonly seen outside of a monastic order, but without any sort of higher divine graces. He is a misanthrope who explodes into rage at every red light, and who, in his own words “can’t relate to 99 percent of humanity.” When pressed to find a partner who shares his interests, he sighs “I hate my interests.”
He’s one of the bleakest characters in fiction, yet somehow, miraculously, Buscemi makes him likable. This is worrisome because the easily dazzled Enid kinda-sorta falls for him, and he’s not exactly a role model.
Ghost World‘s attitude is timeless and its aesthetic was way ahead of its time, so in many ways this 20-year-old movie —which is currently streaming on Starz— feels surprisingly current. There are, however, some notable changes that have occurred since 2001. The most obvious is the gap in technology, which really adds another depressing layer to an already dark (though hysterical) movie. Enid and Becky (and Seymour, and their dopey friend Josh played by Brad Renfro, and some strange dude played by Pat Healy who thinks making anti-Semitic jokes is a way to impress Enid, plus Bob Balaban as Enid’s father) spend a lot of time just “hangin’ out” across from one another over coffee. They chat, play with the sugar, leaf through the alt weekly paper. Nowadays (if I may slip into Seymour voice) they’d have their phones out with advertising blasting into their eyeballs.
Also, though I usually shrug at “you can’t make that joke anymore” arguments, there’s the probability that Enid’s sharp tongue might get sanded down in a current treatment. Her very first line of dialogue contains what is now called “the R-slur.” Observing two acquaintances canoodling she remarks “he better watch out, or he’ll get AIDS when he date-rapes her.” While these are hardly admirable things to say, they are true to her character. (The very young-looking 18-year-old’s frank sexual remarks get a shocked “Jesus!” response from Seymour no less than three times.) And it’s possible that in today’s climate a character who says these things might not be granted hero status without some lesson learned.
As far as 20 years later is concerned, where are Enid and Becky now? Becky surely is married with a few kids, one about to graduate high school themselves. And she’s happy, sure, basically happy, why do you ask? Anyway, she’s back in touch with her old best friend Enid, after years of wondering what happened to her. She moved to Portland, then Brooklyn, then was actually in a farmhouse in Virginia with four other people (that was a nightmare) and now is back home, teaching art part time, and tremendously proud of the three graphic novels she’s published, one of which even went into a second printing.
No one really knows what happened to Seymour, or his thousands of blues 78s.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and critic in New York City. His work also appears in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and the Times of Israel. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, and tweets about Phish and Star Trek at @JHoffman.
Where to stream Ghost World