“Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody.”
The 90s were a great time for apathy and cynicism. I graduated from high school in ‘99, and let me tell you, we hated everything. Ghost World, an indie art house film directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Bad Santa) and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, took that 90s angst and injected it with a bit of Existential angst. It’s equal parts Daria and Waiting for Godot. It’s a biting satire not only of the world of the 90s, but also of the angry counterculture that sprang out of it, showing that even all those people who said that everything sucked also sucked. Sardonic, darkly funny, and vaguely depressing, this film is edgy in a way that many other films try to be, and it dares to push further into that territory than any other film I’ve seen.
The film opens with Rebecca and Enid, two high school girls who have intentionally avoided everything popular, attending their high school graduation and starting to come to grips with the fact that they’re now adults and out in the “real world.” The pair meets Seymour, a middle-aged loser who struggles to form a real connection with anybody. Initially, Enid ruthlessly makes fun of Seymour, but quickly comes to see a lot of herself in this aging hipster with no friends, and she starts putting efforts into fixing his life—all the while ignoring the blaring problems in her own life. Rebecca, eager to fulfill the childhood dream of getting an apartment with Enid, gets a job and puts her money toward practical things like dishware and grown-up clothing. Enid, meanwhile, refuses to participate in society and can’t hold a job down. As you can imagine, this is not a recipe for success, and the real world soon hits her with a hard wave of reality.
I used to think about one day, just not telling anyone and going off to some random place. And I’d just… disappear. And they’d never see me again.
Rebecca and Enid laugh derisively at everything, and Ghost World presents a world that is easy to laugh at, even when you feel like a terrible person for doing it. It opens with a cringe-worthy graduation ceremony and gets worse from there. But, unlike most films that choose to laugh at everything, this one makes a pretty strong statement about the laughers. It’s like a manic pixie dream girl plot in reverse: a quirky, free-spirited girl latches onto a boring guy with a lot of social problems, but she discovers that her own life is a disaster and she’s in no shape to help anyone. And she has no idea how to fix things or get relief—she’s waiting for her Godot to come along and make things better, even though she has no idea what that is or what it will do, or if it will come at all. Rebecca and Seymour are offered a little more hope, but their lives are far from perfect. In a very 90s statement, everything sucks and there’s no getting away from that. (Yes, I know the film was released in 2001, but it’s an adaptation of a comic put out in the mid-90s.)
This film isn’t exactly an uplifting one, but it’s not quite as bad as that last paragraph makes it seem. The character growth in all three main characters is admirable and you get the sense that, while things may never be great, they can at least be better. There are also some genuinely funny moments in the film that keep the mood from getting too depressing. This is a film for true outsiders—not just popular people with one uncool hobby or quirk, but people who truly cannot connect with most other humans. There’s a part of watching these characters want to change and get better that actually is a little uplifting, so there actually is a little hope offered for those of us who often find ourselves on the fringes of popular societal norms.
Ghost World captures the angst and isolation of being a teenage in the 90s, but it does it from a place of understanding, unlike most other films that touch on this. Every teen film wants to show the outsiders, but very few of those writers know what it’s like to chronically be on the outside with no capacity for breaking into the norm. Though the film offers no real answers, it does an excellent job of articulating the right questions of youth. I think most viewers would be able to see the depth and character growth, but this film is made for people in their late teens and early 20s and will be most impactful for that audience. If you’re looking for a smart teen comedy that doesn’t resort to cliches, though, this is undoubtedly it.
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Genres: comedy, indie, teen