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"Ghost World" and the Art of Teenage Uncertainty

Updated on August 10, 2011

For multiple generations of young people, a rare film comes along that speaks to them. Whether it exhibits the realistic tales of young love, teenage angst, or overall uncertainty in life, a particular film remains integral to their concept of growing up. For young audiences in the 1980s, a film such as “The Breakfast Club” broke down social cliques to reveal that every teenager faces the same problems. Someone such as myself attended high school at the turn of the millennium while on the borderline of high school politics. I was both a jock and a nerd. I participated in two varsity sports for all four years of my high school career. I wasn’t any good, but both sports kept me in shape while cultivating friendships with my teammates. Academically, I was a consistent A and B student but nothing outstanding. Socially, I had my group of friends while engaging in sarcastic remarks belittling the popular kids behind their backs. We weren’t perfect but felt that we had the potential to be something different without compromising our beliefs.

My senior year of high school, I came across a film that spoke to me. In 2001, an independent film directed by Terry Zwigoff based on the comic “Ghost World” by Daniel Clowes premiered to film festivals with critical acclaim. It’s the tale of two recent high school graduates who live day-to-day lives in uncertainty. Getting through society with cynicism, witty and sarcastic interpretations of life without any personal ambitions, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends who loathe responsibility and conformity.

After spotting a “chance meeting” ad in a local paper, they prank call a lonely man named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and invite him to meet his potential mate in a faux-retro 1950s diner with the intention of having his date stand him up. After watching him alone in the diner from afar, Enid, Rebecca, and their mutual friend Josh (Brad Renfro), start to follow Seymour out of morbid curiosity. They reach Seymour’s apartment complex the following Saturday while him and his roommate hold a tag sale. Enid approaches Seymour and soon learns he’s an avid blues vinyl record collector. Out of feeling sorry for him, she reluctantly purchases a cheap record but later visits him again out of pure fascination of his personality.

Enid invites Rebecca to a party hosted by Seymour which turns out to be a low-key, boring get-together with other avid record collecting nerds. After expressing fascination, Seymour allows Enid access to his extensive record collection room with the walls littered with vintage music posters. It’s here where Enid’s unique personality connects with the older Seymour’s equal disconnection from 99 percent of humanity. As Seymour tries to put it:

“You think it’s healthy to obsessively collect things? Can’t connect with other people so you fill your life with stuff like the rest of these other collector losers.”

While over the course of the summer months, Enid must attend a summer art class in order to make up failed credits to fulfill graduation requirements. An avid notebook drawer, Enid does not take the class seriously, which is headed by bohemian socially conscience artist Roberta (Illeana Douglas). Meanwhile, Enid is trying to push Seymour into meeting the right woman. As she spends time with him, her friendship with Rebecca declines. Enid and Rebecca had the dream of moving into their own apartment together while Rebecca gets a job as a barista at a coffee shop. Enid, while avoiding responsibility, still lives with her dad without any ambition. Enid eventually gets a job at a movie theater. In the spirit of her character’s cynicism for mainstream corporate culture, she defies her supervisor and treats customers with brutal honesty.

As Enid’s friendship with Seymour develops, he’s eventually contacted by that particular woman he placed the classified ad for. The two begin to date while Enid finds herself out of the loop of a potential soul mate while sabotaging her longstanding friendship with Rebecca. Over the course of the summer after high school, Enid matures a bit but still remains uncertain with life and those around her. The film ends on an ambiguous epilogue but maintains the realistic feeling young adults face at a time of confusion.

“Ghost World” can be billed as a “dramedy.” There are certain parts that paint realistic relationships with friends and parents. There are countless young people fresh out of high school with plans of attending college or getting into the workforce. But deep down, they still have no idea what they want to do with life. Mixed in the film is a bevy of crazy comedic characters. One memorable supporting character is Doug (Dave Sheridan), the eccentric loiterer at Josh’s convenience store.

However, the take-away of the film is transcendence of real-life emotional concepts from both the teen and older adult perspectives. Enid is at a crossroads with no certainty while Seymour is mature but inexperienced in finding a true love. He strikes up a friendship with a young girl who understands him and pushes him to find happiness. However, at the same time Seymour has the opportunity to pursue a realistic relationship with a woman his own age. Ten years since its release, “Ghost World” remains a smart, original film filled with great dialogue, memorable characters, and relatable themes for any generation.


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