It’s one of the most difficult things that an artist might attempt to do, to represent what it’s like to be a teenager. Most distributed filmmakers, novelists, or poets are adults, and they (quite understandably) refract and reshape their past experiences, sometimes because these experiences are too awful or too unbelievable to recreate outright, but more often because, in looking back, said artists gain perspective, distance, or a sense of survivor’s humor and maybe even guilt. RJ Cutler’s series, American High, is a notable exception, but it makes the case by its exception: it’s a series that is mostly conceived and generated by kids. If you think about the many adult-made images of adolescence that abound in mass media, from “family sitcoms” to “teen melodramas” to “high school romantic comedies,” it becomes obvious that adolescence is hard to get right.
Ghost World, a new movie directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) and based on co-writer Daniel Clowes’ underground comic strip, gets it right. It’s smart, sensitive, and insightful about the lunacy that constitutes adolescence, and never forgets how real and how complicated kids’ feelings are. Add to this the fact that the film is mostly about two girl adolescents—Enid (the extraordinary Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson)—and the men’s achievement seems even more remarkable. That said, the entire enterprise is helped immeasurably by Steve Buscemi, who plays as Enid’s ooky sorta-soulmate, Seymour, a sullen, terminally adolescent record-and-everything-else collector. While I will confess to my own crush on the character Enid, I can easily see that she is only as brilliantly realized as she is because of Buscemi’s startlingly shrewd and magnanimous performance.
Ghost World takes place during the summer following Enid and Rebecca’s graduation from high school, as they’re trying to figure out how to parlay their longstanding alienation, insecurity, and sense of superiority to their classmates into a way to live in the “outside world.” Rebecca is the more overtly “well-adjusted” of the two, as she immediately gets a job (at a Starbucks-like coffee franchise) and starts apartment-hunting, in hopes that they will follow through on their school girl dreams of “getting a place of [their] own.” Enid is a little less self-assured, however, and finds herself struggling with a number of decisions and, not incidentally, the adults who want to help her make those decisions. Her nicey-nice, let’s-talk-it-over-honey dad (Bob Balaban) is getting a little too friendly with his hopelessly corny ex-wife Maxine (Teri Garr). And on top of that indignity, Enid learns that she needs to take one last summer class in order to graduate from school for real (this after enduring that terrible ceremony with gowns and mortarboards and self-important classmates). The art class is taught by a touchy-feely, left-leaning teacher named Roberta (the excellent Illeana Douglas). Sitting alongside her fellow remedials in a classroom on summer days, Enid rolls her eyes and puffs her cheeks. Like too many well-intentioned teachers, Roberta thinks she can reach her pupils by speaking “their language,” and inspiring them to “find themselves” in reflections of her own interests (for instance, the girl who makes a “found art” sculpture of a tampon in a teacup, to display the oppression of women). The problem is that Roberta has no idea to whom she’s talking. And so it goes that the students who respond most eagerly are the ones who want good grades.
Enid will have none of this nonsense, blowing off Maxine’s efforts to act interested in what she’s up to, and bringing her dark, violent comic-booky drawings to class to show Roberta. At the same time, Enid frets (sort of) about what she takes to be her own lack of grace and beauty, her crush on her longtime buddy Josh (Brad Renfro), who works at a comic book store she and Rebecca frequent, and her apparently unsuccessful evocation of ‘70s punk rock, accomplished with her dyed green hair, vintage miniskirt, and black lipstick. She even makes a stab at part-time employment at a local multiplex (toward the end of affording the apartment with Rebecca), but can’t convince herself to sell the large-instead-of-the-medium soda to an unthirsty customer, or to recommend the stupid movie he wants to see. As you might expect, no one else quite gets what she’s going through—and no one is more acutely aware of this than Enid herself.
Meanwhile, the most important development of her life (or maybe just her summer) begins by accident, sort of. She and Rebecca set up a non-meeting with a poor schmuck—Seymour—whom they’ve found in a personals ad: they pretend to be the woman he’s solicited in the ad, set up a meeting in a diner, then sit in a booth to watch him drink milkshakes at the counter, while he waits for the woman who’s not coming. Pranky fun, sure, but soon they run into Seymour again, at a garage sale, where he’s selling some of his precious ancient blues records out of milk crates. His deep-sunk eyes and shuffly manner speak to Enid in a way she can’t really fathom, and it’s not long before the two of them are spending time together, with Enid serving as Seymour’s self-appointed matchmaker. Her efforts to hook him up with tight-topped girls in bars are naturally doomed to disaster, and after each encounter, they regale one another with fresh memories of these girls’ shallowness and terrible taste in music.
And then, just as Enid finds herself drawn to him (she admits to Rebecca, “He’s the exact opposite of everything I hate”), Seymour makes a real connection with the personals ad gal, Dana (Stacy Travis, long-ago survivor of the creepy sf-horror flick Hardware), and actually seems to appreciate that she picks out his clothes (in particular, jeans that hug his ass). This is an alarming turn of events for Enid, shaking her faith in his weirdness and their shared sense of disdain and misery. At the same time, she recognizes that theirs is a go-nowhere relationship. At some level, Seymour is what he looks like, a guy who wants so badly to be normal and “have” someone that he’s willing to give up what makes him special, to Enid anyway, his petulance and acrid humor. But then, Seymour is no longer 18, as she is, and he can’t afford to maintain that level of intuition, self-deprecation, and skepticism anymore. His last scene (which I won’t give away) is perhaps the cruelest in the film, and probably a step beyond where it needed to go.
But this scene also leads to Enid’s last scene, which is striking in its fantastical simplicity, a scene reinforcing the point that, though Seymour pulls you to him, much as he has pulled Enid, with his wit and perceptiveness, Ghost World is not his movie. It is focused on an adolescent girl; it’s Enid’s film. And even that’s a more intricate and substantive idea than it might seem at first. On its surface, Ghost World looks to be about Enid’s coming to terms with what she sees as her failures—her inability to connect with her dad and Seymour, her inadvertent break with Rebecca (who emphatically does not appreciate the time Enid is spending with Seymour), and her hurtful loss of an art scholarship that would have saved her from all her troubles (or at least that would have been the case in another movie). But the movie is not so pat or as judgmental as that. It’s not about how she “matures.” Rather, it’s about Enid coming to recognize her own capacity for generosity and wonder, traits that she has all along, as a teenager.