Ghost World and the Crisis of Coming of Age

Movies Features Scarlett Johansson
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<i>Ghost World</i> and the Crisis of Coming of Age

For teenage girls looking to dabble in the realm of comic books and their cinematic adaptations, it would appear that blockbuster offerings à la Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and the recently-hyped Black Widow are the end all be all. On the contrary, Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson’s breakout film venture is the true coming-of-age celluloid comic: Crumb director Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. As opposed to focusing on superhuman ability and surface-level feminism, Ghost World’s main characters are listless, lewd and lonely—traits that bring Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Johansson) into the upper echelons of frankly defiant on-screen young womanhood.

The duo’s defining cynicism is made immediately clear during their high school graduation ceremony, a decorous milestone in which they have no interest. Enid and Rebecca chortle and roll their eyes as their recent wheelchair-using classmate makes a painfully cliched speech about the perils of driving under the influence. “I liked her so much better when she was an alcoholic crack addict,” scoffs Enid. As the ceremony concludes, the pair join their classmates in rushing out of the building with haste—incongruent with their peers, Enid and Rebecca rip off their caps and stomp them on the ground, sealing the defiant action with two middle fingers directed at the building. While the gesture indicates a healthy (if excessive) ire for their high school experience, this pessimism is also targeted toward the future. Neither Enid or Rebecca plan on going to college, instead opting to go through with their BFF fantasy of getting jobs and renting an apartment together downtown. Unfortunately, the girls’ myopic view of the world begins to slowly eat away at their pleasant plot. Enid begins to get cold feet over actually going through with growing up and becomes obsessed with dorky record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi) while Rebecca embarks on perusing the real estate section and securing employment for a plan that has become worryingly one-sided.

Of course, Enid and Rebecca represent the conflict intrinsic to this transition from youth to adulthood—that of fearful clinging to one’s established comfort versus the desire to break free from the tired existence of adolescent aimlessness. This is also a dichotomy entrenched in Gen X despondency, empathetically employed by Zwigoff and co-writer Clowes. Yet the angst that Enid and Rebecca exhibit is excruciatingly relatable on a molecular level, particularly in the face of rose-colored representations of 17-year-old girls being at the opportune precipice of the rest of their lives, whether this involves their academic success, burgeoning beauty or romantic desirability. Enid and Rebecca are respectable fuck-ups—funny and efficacious in all their interactions, but lacking any sort of inertia to truly prove they’re that much better than everyone (and the stereotypes) they hate.

“He’d better watch out or he’ll get AIDS when he date-rapes her,” Enid comments at two classmates’ expense during the graduation dance. This vitriolic sentiment fuels much of the pair’s conversation; though the dialogue comes off as mean-spirited and callous in the vein of popular and comparatively one-dimensional Heathers-esque bullies, these remarks are rooted in realistic teen-speak that few films have the distinction of achieving. It’s also patently obvious that for these teenagers, incendiary put-downs for their promising peers are merely a defense mechanism. Sure, these people might try to “make it,” but surely they have no idea what macabre reality is in store for them. Particularly for Enid and Rebecca, who reside in a drab suburb of gauche, franchise-driven Americana, the power of edgy, acerbic asides to one another elevates the boring occurrences in their town—though they often fall victim to sensationalizing and mischaracterizing the very perils they claim to grasp.

Perhaps this is also why Enid is painfully uninterested in her remedial summer school art class until Seymour bestows upon her the controversial original poster for his employer Cook’s Chicken, once repugnantly called “Coon Chicken” with a minstrel-style caricature as a mascot. After causing a divisive in-class discussion which culminates in the quirky avant-garde teacher taking her side (and later causing an uproar among parents), Enid remains convinced that her disgruntled view of the world might not be completely unsuited for a future of recognition. Rebecca’s day job and apartment hunt seem to progressively draw her eye toward conventional aspirations, though her sarcasm still extends toward her regular customers (“Some people are okay, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody”). She begins to seriously consider the attractiveness of local boys once deemed too dweeby for pursuing while shopping for housewares at big box stores. “I can’t imagine spending money on plastic cups,” Enid sighs in response.

When Enid realizes that her best friend (and ostensible extension of herself) is maturing out of their signature directionless daze, she instinctively pulls away for fear of being corralled into growing up alongside Rebecca. She begins spending more and more time with Seymour, who encapsulates “the exact opposite” of everything Enid despises. Despite having a career and adult responsibilities, he continues to cling to the idiosyncratic hobbies that have long defined his personality. He collects obscure records, has an entire room dedicated to film posters and niche memorabilia and lives with an equally stagnant roommate. Through Seymour, Enid is reassured that she can have the life of eccentricity and arrested development which she craves—an infatuation that ironically concludes with an ill-conceived hookup that implodes Seymour’s relationship with his age-appropriate new girlfriend and sends him back to living with his mother. Enid uncomfortably realizes that there is never a point where people stop growing and regressing in sporadic steps; unable to confront the expectation to evolve alongside those closest to her, she boards a bus and flees.

“I used to think about one day, just not telling anyone, and going off to some random place,” says Enid just before kissing Seymour. “And I’d just…disappear. And they’d never see me again.” Choosing to fully commit to indulging in reverie, Enid finds a way to embark on a new chapter of her life while refusing to actually challenge her carefully cultivated ingenue self-image. She refuses to move in with Rebecca; she ditches Seymour’s offer to play house after their fling. The only time she comes close to conforming to any semblance of a traditional post-high school trajectory is when her remedial art teacher puts her name in the ring for an art school scholarship on the strength of her Cook’s Chicken piece…only for the opportunity to be cruelly pulled out from under her when the outcry from parents and faculty force the administration to fail Enid. In this sense, Ghost World astutely maintains that cynicism is not only warranted, but a perfectly appropriate worldview. Most other coming-of-age films would see Enid and Rebecca stay the best of friends, commence exciting new professional prospects and kindle respective romances. Zwigoff and Clowes—conceivably speaking from experience—disrupt this dreams-come-true trope in order to realistically and radically state that failure, disappointment and conflict are indelible aspects of life.

Embodying these distinct yet parallel experiences is no easy task, but Ghost World’s cast accomplishes this feat with finesse. Birch’s Enid is so earnestly steeped in Clowe’s original character conception that it’s almost uncanny, an all-out performance that effectively altered the actor’s own personal perception afterwards. “I had gone so far into Enid that I really was only Enid for a while, maybe for around a year and a half after filming. It took me a long time to re-find my own identity, separate from her,” Birch said. The opening shot of Enid wildly gyrating alongside a Bollywood dance sequence on her TV almost reads as Birch’s body being possessed by Enid’s spirit, chucking all inhibitions to the wayside with her presence. A 15-year-old Johansson is equally spectacular as the mundanely mordant Rebecca, a break-out role that is almost impossible to believe isn’t executed by a seasoned actor with ample experience with emotional tightrope-walking. Though she’s never as audacious or unpredictable as Enid, it becomes progressively salient to the audience that despite any fantasy of ascribing to Enid’s give-no-shits demeanor, Rebecca’s practical aspirations of independence are far more worthy of emulation. The more self-effacing viewers will instantly connect with Buscemi’s Seymour, who despite being in his mid-30s, is not immune to having “life turn to shit.” Therefore, Ghost World is also a blatantly adult coming-of-age story. At any point, our lives can become unpredictable, tumultuous periods of retrogression, stagnation or germination—and it simply has to be dealt with.

However, Ghost World is a film that has little preoccupation with infusing a moral message. Zwigoff and Clowes have encouraged open interpretations of the film, including the theory that Enid’s final bus departure is a metaphor for her having committed suicide due to the pressure of failing to conform. This is, morbidly, just another way of dealing with the harsh realities of tempestuous transition. Though it might appear to be a brackish and disillusioned conclusion, the vague open-endedness of what happens to Enid and those she abandons is a piercing (and suitably sour) declaration: The course of one’s life is often absurd and disappointing. The true challenge remains in embracing failure and dismay as the default, all while preserving a sense of humor.

Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan