Terry Zwigoff came to prominence with a documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb (Crumb, 1994). He segued into fictional filmmaking by directing from a script by another such artist, Daniel Clowes, and himself. The protagonist, a new high school graduate, is herself such an artist, whose “diary” consists of comic book sketches of people she comes across and works over in her imagination and others who are actually in her life. This is Enid. Seymour, the middle-aged oddball whose personal ad inspires a bit of mean-spirited mischief on her part, gives Enid the chance to “see more” about life and into the workings of the human heart. Zwigoff’s Ghost World is one of the sharpest, funniest, warmest comedies of the twenty-first century. It leaves one a bit haunted.
Enid is spiritedly played by Thora Birch (best actress, San Diego and Toronto critics), whose slitting gaze or reaction, besides being hilarious, pegs her also as an oddball—someone who doesn’t quite fit in with the high school crowd. She is an artist after all, and that means she lives her life as much observing as being herself in the moment; the vast majority of her peers are content with the moment. Everything about Enid—her hair; the way she dresses; her attitude—makes a statement: “I’m me, so fuck off!” Or something like that. Her practical best friend is Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, best supporting actress, Toronto); Rebecca is a reluctant ally in mischief, and the girls pursue a long-nurtured dream of getting their own apartment. Meanwhile, Enid has an art class she needs to complete (Illeana Douglas, Melvyn’s granddaughter, gives a knockout caricature of the ridiculous teacher), is secretly in love with a boy whom she torments and who doesn’t have a clue, and is becoming increasingly involved in Seymour’s life. She presses Seymour to get a date and, drunk, one night takes him to bed herself.
The film is sheer pleasure from start to finish, but two things stand out. One is the gentle, affecting performance that Steve Buscemi gives as the genially weird Seymour (best supporting actor, National Society of Film Critics, Independent Spirit Award, critics’ groups in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Vancouver). The other is the film’s final movement. Throughout the film, Norman, whom life may have passed by, waits on a bench for a bus whose route has long since been discontinued. One day Enid witnesses its showing up; otherwise without passengers, the bus takes Norman away. At the end, helpless at a crossroads and unsure about the course of her life, Enid parks herself on that bench. In long-shot, in the dark night, a bus pulls up and Enid enters and is slowly taken away. Every artist worth her salt must embrace her destiny: her place in the world of ghosts.
Zwigoff won the prize of the ecumenical jury at Karlovy Vary, and the San Diego critics named Ghost World best film of the year, Zwigoff, best director, and Zwigoff and Clowes for the year’s best script.
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