Somewhere between the midpoint of most people’s high school career and the summer after graduation there lies a passage of early adulthood in which one is old enough to know just how disheartening the world can be, but young enough to not be especially invested in any of it. Poised at that threshold between the folly of youth and the folly of adulthood, one has the opportunity to tap into a wellspring of cynicism and snark that has a fairly short half-life but proves indispensable for the process of growing up. And while the angst of disaffected teenagers has been reliable movie-making fodder for decades, the particular environment of any given generation’s moment in the sun calls for a constant re-evaluation of the topic. And on that front, one of the best treatments we have for what this rite of passage might have looked like in the late 1990s and early 2000s is Terry Zwigoff’s low-key masterpiece of sarcasm, boredom, weaponized irony and epic eye-rolling: Ghost World.
The story takes place in an unnamed American town that is affluent enough to feature a depressing array of Big Consumerism but marginal enough for its every street to look like its best days were looooong before our protagonists were even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes. Enid and Rebecca are two young women who are best friends, recently graduated from high school, and filled with disdain for the mindless roles modern-day big-box America seems to offer. They have no aspirations other than making just enough money to move in together, ostensibly so they can keep on hanging around and making fun of whomever fails to live up to their own mercurial standards. Their latest victim is a presumed loser named Seymour, an older guy the girls trick into answering a personal ad so they can stand him up and watch his disappointment from afar. But when the cheap laughter subsides, Enid finds herself feeling strangely guilty over it, and begins an unlikely relationship with a man who, two months earlier, would never have garnered anything more than some seriously shady side-eye. Meanwhile, Rebecca is discovering that maybe having a job and a boyfriend might not be the worst thing in the world. As Enid and Rebecca’s lives begin to take different trajectories, will the friendship that sustained them become yet another casualty of long-term exposure to America’s cultural wasteland? Or are they, you know…maybe just growing up?
Ghost World gets hailed for being one of the great comic book movies, and while that’s true—it was adapted from a landmark independent graphic novel of the same name—one would be forgiven for coming to this movie cold and having no clue of its comix lineage. What Ghost World is, regardless of its origins, is an acidic take on the frustrations of what it means to grow up in a world where everything feels hollow, where everyone seems to be a stranger, and where even the city buses seem to be running nowhere. There is hardly a kid in America (and, one might wager, more than a few other places) who hasn’t felt like Enid and Rebecca at some point in their adolescence, when an incomplete knowledge of the world is at once both a tool for ignorance and a freedom from compromise that results in a worldview at once familiar and infuriating to just about anyone older. And Ghost World absolutely nails this Goldilocks zone of everyone younger than you being a stupid rookie, everyone older than you being a stupid sellout.,and life itself feeling like the haunting of something else far greater than all…this.
But it also nails that this phase in life has an expiration date, and not everyone recognizes when it’s time to move on before they become one of the things they used to parody. That’s what really drives the conflict here: Enid decides to connect to Seymour because she is suddenly struck by an adult’s capacity for generosity and guilt. This, even though she’s hellbent on hanging on to that youthful part of her that can unapologetically place racist artwork on display and expect the world to either accept it as artistic provocation, or not, because who cares? I didn’t need that scholarship anyway. School’s for jerks.
But Enid’s sense of confusion over Seymour is doubled by her confusion over Rebecca’s slow metamorphosis into one of the sellouts Enid (and not long ago, Rebecca, too) despise. What the hell is going on here? By the time we see Enid collapse on her bed and cry the first genuine tears of her life, we finally begin to understand that if Enid doesn’t recognize anyone in her life anymore, it’s because she doesn’t recognize herself anymore, either. It’s cool to be cruel until suddenly it’s not, and somehow, that realization becomes its own kind of cruelty.
The moment of truth comes at the movie’s end, as we watch Enid wrestle with the decision to see where the city bus line really goes. As she chooses what to do next, we can imagine what it’ll be, and not because she has manages to salt the earth in almost every aspect of her life to this point—her square but good-intentioned father, her increasingly estranged Rebecca, and her much worse-for-wear Seymour most of all. It’s because we’ve all gone where she’s going ourselves. Some viewers have seen the ending of this movie as a metaphor for suicide. And perhaps on one level, they are right. Our childhood only ends when we acknowledge our adult selves. That’s one of the reasons why adulthood sucks so bad. You’re not given much choice in the matter. But even when we don’t like what we’re acknowledging, we’re acknowledge it, all the same. And once we do that, we are never quite the same. Some people survive that process better than others. Other’s don’t and are forever haunted—by themselves, most of all.