Is Ghost World a pretentious film, or merely about pretentious people? Watching and studying it again, I think it is a bit of both. Of the notable criticisms, most are aimed at protagonist Enid, highlighting her behaviour as selfish and cruel, and condemning the overall mood of pessimism, disconnectedness and morbidity. But what teenager hasn't gone through that phase? Placed precariously in a zone of uncertainty after graduating high school, her best friend quickly assimilates into the small-town adulthood, donning a chain cafe uniform and hunting for the perfect two bedroom apartment. Enid would rather die an early death than succumb to such plainness. The opening sequence captures the heart of her vitality against the sad, seedy backdrops of American suburbia, cycling through various states of disregard and then back to Enid - her walls decorated with the same feverish red as her costume, her bob cut swishing from side to side in careless abandon to Indian surf rock. Director Terry Zwigoff, working together with Daniel Clowes, makes a distinct departure from the source comic's colour scheme and style from the very beginning, replacing a melancholic swathe of blue with warmer colours that pop out from the backdrops; clothes and props flushed with pink, red, orange, hair dyed bright green and blue, neon signage blaring amongst hellish light. The mise en scène is Enid's style, and Enid's style is a way of life, never boring, never plain, always changing.
Thora Birch is even more defiant than she was in American Beauty. Fashioning a distinct rebellion through her makeup and wardrobe, she recreates styles so precise that they are mistaken for wannabe efforts, so obscure that no one could possibly be impressed. But Enid doesn't want to admit that fashion alone can only take you so far; she's equipped with a unrelenting supply of sarcasm and cynical wit, delivered with dry, deadpan amusement, but not much else (her remedial art teacher fills in the gaps of her genius work). She keeps a sketchbook documenting the hallway of freaks and geeks she encounters in her everyday life, both relishing and resenting the fact that she could occupy a double page spread of her own. So when she stumbles upon Seymour (through an act of teenage viciousness), it's a sign, a soulmate sent from heaven. How could she have ever been best friends with Rebecca anyway? They're polar opposites - Becky blond and pretty, always fending off advances from boys, while Enid's aura of superiority and disgust is her potent version of skunk spray: keep away. But she's fascinated by Seymour, firstly as a strange new specimen for her to prod and play with, and then as someone with a fairly satisfying existence in a seemingly dead-end town. He's portrayed by Steve Buscemi, who has the kind of look that screams character actor, but through sheer persistence and talent has forged a remarkable career. In one of his best performances, he never lets the character become a cliché, despite all the signs pointing to that eventuality: middle aged, single, an eccentric collection, a "funny looking" face, all of which combine to form a human blob that cannot to relate to 99% of society (see how Buscemi is outright unapologetic about how his party might slide into sleaziness, and notice that it isn't out of malice). He can relate to Enid, though, because she shares the same predicament. Their friendship blossoms into something oddly sweet and endearing, with Enid determined to right her wrongs and find Seymour a date; if he's weird and can't find romance, then she's bananas and doomed forever. But wait, isn't that Enid's way of life? Is it a choice or not?
The title refers to the utter banality of the suburban existence, of lonely TV meals, of nuclear families festering in apartment blocks. There was a deliberate effort to minimise the presence of extras, an added element of inertia; no one coming or going, or even living, just a few figures here and there trudging to their next destination. It's all a tad dated, because nearly two decades on that unnamed small suburban town is now bustling and medium sized, and we've all just accepted that corporate logos are going to be involved. We all know a Melora, a bouncing, overly shrill cheerleader that sometimes you just want a break from, but hey, at least she's enthusiastic about the next stage of her life (and summer holidays, and extracurricular, and breakfast, and finding a penny on the ground...). Modern art is weird and meaningful, sometimes both, sometimes neither, but taking aim at it is just low hanging fruit (and the art snobs will turn it against you anyway). The film grips me in a different way now. If I had watched this even a couple of years ago I would have been captivated with Enid's self-stylised rebellion, letting no one and nothing define how she lives her life. It's not about what colour her hair is or what weird mask she wears, but the specific attitude of individualism and personality. Isn't the appeal of that something universal? But now it's almost painful to revisit - I see how clearly she is enamored and disappointed with herself at the same time, and it hurts too much, reminds me of too much. Mostly I just sympathise. Getting on that bus is a brave and revealing move, knowing that she is about to be all alone again - it wasn't the town, it was her all along. And I'm hoping to god that she finds what she is looking for.