Ghost World (2001) has an electric heart. It’s a spirited outsider story about two girls coming out of high school and seeing what else the world has left for them. Enid (Thora Birch, fresh off American Beauty, 1999) is a postmodern, thrift store hipster. She wears old styles ironically and disdains what they represent. She has had it with the status quo and establishes her own art of apathy – a higher personal art – that rejects everything that is simple and hip.
Her story is full of characters that are quite unlike her. Rebecca (Scarlet Johansson) is a high school friend of convenience. They utilize each other for a maximum social benefit, a means to escape the drudgery of high school life. This is the story about what happens after the fact, as they sit through commencement speeches and meet people with purpose and ambition, unsure of what awaits them on the other side of the school’s doors.
One of their last hurrahs is a prank that involves answering classified ads in the paper and setting up a lonely antique collector, Seymore (Steve Buscemi), with a non-existent date. They wait in their mock 50s-styled dinner and observe his lack of connection. They try to find his desperation in a situation they’ve rigged for failure, but the desperation is of their own design.
Instead, Enid becomes preoccupied with his eclectic interest in collectibles. His earnest enthusiasm for forgotten vinyl reflects her interest in trying on outdated fashions. Her postmodern appeal is to bring a nubile new life to his old man hobbies and connect him with women as a kind of dating coach. This, of course, disrupts her relationship with Rebecca, which only holds enough room for one friend. The two diverge down separate pathways: one moves forward, while the other regresses into bizarre nostalgic behaviors.
Enid’s peculiar in a very directed way. Her attitudes preceded those of the generation that followed her. She would put on her best faux punk outfit and go to the VHS store, where the employees would remark that her clothes were out of fashion. But that was the point. For Enid, fashion became a refusal of the time and place and a reinforcement of her beliefs.
She walks vibrantly colored streets marked by signs of desperation, yet will see something else. There’s a man who sits on a bench for an out-of-service bus every day. She marks this as the one thing she can count on in a world that is not dependable. Everything shifts and conforms to the world around it, while ethereal Enid and the man waiting for the bus stay the same.
In art classes, the eclectic art teacher tries to make them understand the deeper meaning of art. She wants everyone to produce work that helps the world understand them. Enid produces a piece of “found art,” an old, blatantly racist propaganda picture. But when she puts her intentions into discovery and creating meaning through differentiating herself, she is shunned.
In this way, the bond she forges with Seymore becomes the one natural element of the film. His decision to live in a world of antiques appeals to her conscious denial of anything modern or trendy, so they become friends and eventually disrupt one another’s lives as their relationship grows. They do not want the same things but use each other to find something better.
Ghost World has a lot going for it aesthetically. Its three primary characters each provide their own signature colors and each paints their own interpretation of modernity. Yes, it’s a film about relics of the past, but it understands what has come before and signals a shift in what could follow.