Why ‘Ghost World’ Was 20 Years Ahead of Its Time

Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 cult classic about two alienated teen misfits was far more prescient than anyone gives it credit for

When Ghost World, a dark comedy about two teenage misanthropes—Enid (Thora Birch), a classic hater, and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), a normie-in-waiting—debuted in July 2001, it was beloved by critics, misfits, and few others. A movie about a guy nailing a pie was the biggest teen hit of the era, and a critic reviewing Ghost World that year echoed what was likely on the minds of every studio exec who’d rejected director Terry Zwigoff’s pitch during the five years it took to get green lit: “Who wants to see teens act the way teens really act, anyway?”

Twenty years later, the answer would be just about everybody. Especially women. Networks have scooped up show after show centering on complex female friendship (Insecure, Fleabag, Broad City) and also those probing the shockingly transgressive lives of teenagers (Skins, 13 Reasons Why, Euphoria). Even Euphoria’s standout misfit-turned-dominatrix Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira), took a DIY Ghost World mood board to the show’s stylist. “I just feel that Kat definitely watched Ghost World and completely related to Enid,” Ferreira told British magazine The Face in 2019.

Ghost World is about two outsiders whiling away their post-high school malaise in a nondescript suburbia that, though never identified, with its strip malls, midcentury diners, and adult bookstores, is clearly Los Angeles playing itself. Enid and Rebecca are queen shit-talkers who hate everything: consumerism, mainstream culture, trendiness, try-hards, and especially their peers—“all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers,” as Enid describes boys their age.

The road to Ghost World, born from artist Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel of the same name, was paved at least in part by the animated MTV show Daria, a show about two teen girl haters, an intellectual and an artist bonded by their mutual disdain for the ultimate bummer that is high school. It lampooned jocks, popular kids, and blowhards from 1997 to 2001. Then Ghost World wedged a Doc Marten through the cracked door it left open.

Enid and Rebecca pick up in their own sick, sad world after high school graduation, where the question of what comes next weighs heavily on them, even though they’re only 18. But their stagnation is existential, and unable to find their people, boredom turns to cruelty. They decide to answer the personal ad of eccentric loner Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who’s hoping to reconnect with a friendly woman he recently met. At first the prank seems like a riot, but after a torturous scene watching him wait at a diner for a woman they know won’t materialize, Enid’s mean spirit turns sympathetic. They follow him home, where, earnestly hawking his vintage rare blues 78s out of a garage, Enid realizes he’s not another bumbling, mouth-breather like the boys she knows, but a fellow weirdo. She decides to play matchmaker, because, as she tells him, she can’t believe in a world where “a guy like you can’t get a date.”

As a complicated friendship develops between Enid and Seymour, Rebecca and Enid’s friendship erodes, largely because what they share in mordant humor, they lack in shared ability to move into conventional adulthood. Rebecca is eager to get a job and an apartment, and Enid, a graphic artist, staves off becoming another cog in the societal wheel.

The film—beautifully shot by cinematographer Affonso Beato, who contrasts deep saturation with pale, ethereal light—is by turns heartfelt and caustic. It’s full of sick burns about normalcy (“Only stupid people have relationships”) and consumerism, such as Enid’s sarcastic pitch to a customer during a brief stint upselling movie popcorn sizes (“Medium is really only for suckers who don’t know the concept of value”). And it’s honest about the real cost of outsiderism, the alienation and depression of feeling born into a world in which you simply don’t fit.

In many ways, the film is a GenX mission statement about holding onto authenticity in the face of reflexive conformity. But it’s an attitude that, if anything, has found greater acceptance today, whether Millennials and Gen Z realize they’re conveying it or not in every anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, brand-taunting tweet. Corporate America still sucks. Mindless consumerism sucks. Work sucks. Trendy people suck (hello, basics and cheugies). Hell, people suck. The only thing worth pursuing is authenticity, which includes but obviously isn’t limited to self-actualization, art-making, kitschy objects from bygone eras, old music, strictly ironic engagement with mainstream culture, and, most importantly, never becoming your sellout Boomer parents.

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Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch as Rebecca and Enid

United Artists / MGM

In Ghost World, Enid, with her authentic ’70s punk cosplay, feels born too late, but by today’s standards, she was born about 20 years premature. Nearly all of what ails Enid in 2001—the monoculture, “adulting,” inauthenticity—would confer warm fellowship among internet misfits today, because the depressed, nihilistic language that drives contemporary social media was her modus operandi. Most of all, Enid just wants to make art but is stuck in a world that demands watering it down into digestible pap rather than letting it be messy or real.

Though the film presciently echos today’s problems, it’s not without its own. The movie is not diverse, and for all its attendant criticisms of certain kinds of appropriation, its characters don’t self-interrogate enough. Seymour, and the film, correctly eviscerate white-boy blues band Blueshammer who, outrageously, perform a song called “Pickin’ Cotton Blues,” in a scene at a local bar. Yet, Seymour’s own fetishization of blues, as well as a plot about old blackface artwork from his corporate job at a chicken restaurant—and Enid’s attempt to co-opt it as her own art project to demonstrate the way it whitewashes reality—is grappled with unsatisfactorily.

But in some of the most memorable scenes, the scathing critique hits the mark. Enid’s art class sketches are derided as lightweight comic book fare by her loony feminist art teacher Roberta (played brilliantly by Illeana Douglas), who side-eyes Enid’s drawings in favor of a fellow student’s “real” artistic feminist statement of a wire hanger sculpture. In one scene, Enid submits a drawing of Don Knotts that bewilders Roberta, only to be one-upped by the student’s next “bold” feminist hot take: a tampon in a teacup, to which teach nearly faints with fawning approval. Today, the scene still reflects the ways in which mainstream feminism has become little more than an empty rhetoric of girl power with none of the activism or inclusivity to back it up (to say nothing of the fact that the popularity of graphic novels is now among publishing’s biggest successes).

In the end, Ghost World is a smart satire about confronting the dark compromises of artistry and adulthood in a capitalist society. But it’s also a coming-of-age tale about outgrowing female friendship, and one that interestingly parallels the careers of its leads. Like Rebecca, ScarJo found mainstream acceptance, while like Enid, Thora Birch became more of an acquired taste in Hollywood. The reasons for this are likely more complex than we could know—Birch, for her part, has said it’s due to her refusal to conform to Hollywood’s expectations. But it confirms that Ghost World, with its forgiving portrait of counterculture oddballs, and today’s appetite for no-filter teen authenticity, was onto something so true it would eventually mainstream itself. Enid would probably hate that—but at least now she’d have a lot of company.

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