Being a young adult, constantly circling the edge of the abyss of adulthood, is one of the most critically important and talked about moments in a person’s life. That’s why bildungsroman novels have their own section in Barnes and Nobles and why teen movies are still one of the most popular genres: because the transition into adulthood is fascinating. And yet, most acclaimed teen movies get it wrong. From John Bender’s borderline rape-y advances towards Claire in The Breakfast Club and still getting to kiss the girl, to the trivialities of and harshness of teenage girls in Mean Girls, most films that focus on young adults simply aren’t accurate and don’t portray the realities of being a young adult. To quote Cher from the hallowed film Clueless, “She’s a full-on Monet. It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s okay. But up close, it’s a big old mess.” Teen movies are seemingly nice on the surface but once you stop to think about them, one realizes that they are, indeed, a big old mess.
Then a movie like Ghost World comes along. Directed by Terry Zwigoff in 2001 and starring the ever young Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as the two leads, Enid and Rebecca. The plot of the film, which is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes, is as simplistic as every other teen movie: the two female leads have just graduated and are trying to figure out what do with their lives and yet, there’s something different about this particular film. It doesn’t dehumanize young adults and treat them as children. Yes, there’s the biting sarcastic humor that accompanies the faux confidence of all young adults along with gag visits to questionable sex shops, but Zwigoff makes a very conscious decision to play these key issues as part of an undercurrent against the much larger, looming theme of the transition into adulthood that the central characters of Enid and Rebecca are going through.
At its center, Ghost World is a coming of age novel that’s realistic in its relationships and its outcomes. Enid and Rebecca’s relationship comes away fractured and unrepairable as consequence of skirting around issues like college and renting an apartment together and instead going to parties where they only complain to one another. It’s as if Enid and Rebecca are attempting to remain suspended in this moment, as if they’re trying to avoid making decisions because they don’t know what they want: it is the teenage condition and they’re afraid of making mistakes.
The entire movie feels like something of a documentary. Perhaps it’s the subtle 90s coloring or the way Zwigoff chose the head on camera angles to mirror reality’s gaze or maybe it’s because I myself was in an identical position on the cusp of adulthood nearly three years ago. Ghost World is suburbia, complete with the strip malls and dinky themed diners. It’s hellish for Enid and Rebecca and yet, they’re seemingly stuck. Ghost World is a representation of the entire youth experience, something out of a teenage nightmare and a universal experience: the yearning to escape and simultaneously the possibility that you never will, highlighted through Enid and Rebecca’s characters. It takes place in an unspecified location thus it’s everywhere. A ghost world is something you carry around with you.
Throughout the film, Zwigoff attempts to make a point of the truth that growing up is difficult; it’s about a desire to fit in while also hating that you care what your peers thing of you. Additional tension is created with the fact that both Enid and Rebecca internalize their struggles and don’t communicate openly with one another, an all too real occurrence in teenage friendship when change seems to be pushing in on all sides. The initial break in their friendship comes from when Enid has started spending time with Seymour, an older man. Rebecca perceives Seymour as a ‘massive dork’ and is unable to take Enid seriously now that she’s hanging around someone like that. Yet there isn’t a single conversation, aside from the arguments where the two characters still just skirt around the issue, where Enid and Rebecca actually discuss their feelings and their fears over the changes that are happening seemingly all at once. It is in that moment when the two part ways on a park bench with Rebecca simply saying ‘call me’, that we realize that both Enid and Rebecca have, at least subconsciously, known that this break was coming all along and throughout the movie and the fact that they were trying so hard to hold on to one another despite the natural forces like just their real personalities, was their way of mourning the friendship that was already gone. There’s an unspoken understanding that the two are growing apart because they’re not similar anymore. Enid and Rebecca lost the thing that bound them together initially, a hatred for everyone else in the world, and the loss is manifested itself in bitter words, subtle fights over moving in together, and a widening gap between their views of ‘normal people’.
In some ways, Enid fulfills the character trope of the upper-middle class suburban girl who wants so desperately to become different from her family, and from the stranded strip mall suburbia hell in which she was raised that she ends up becoming exactly what she fears the most: becoming like every other teenager who thought they could rebel against their upbringing. What Rebecca wants out of life is left vague and perhaps it’s intentional. If Enid fulfills the ‘teenager who just wants to get out of their hometown’ trope then Rebecca naturally steps into the role of the ‘teenager who doesn’t know what they want so they’ll just stay in the town they grew up in’. Both Enid and Rebecca are self-absorbed and self-loathing, though Enid is much more forthcoming with her self-hatred, perhaps to fulfill part of her trope as the angst- filled teen seeking to get out.
Being a teenager is to be a walking dichotomy: you’re still holding on tightly to pieces of your childhood while simultaneously reaching out towards adulthood and also having to deal with being told that your problems aren’t important. Films like Dazed and Confused show that being a young adult is all about the persona and that you’ll look cooler if you hold a cigarette. It is a critical turning point in the life of every individual: a teen is teetering on the precipice of the unknown adulthood while attempting to cling to some shred of their nostalgia for childhood. And yet, the life-altering realities that young adults face are reduced to trivialities in film: a girl can’t find a date to the prom, the shy guy is in love with his best friend, or even the moody, loner teen finds love in an unexpected place. It is as if directors are afraid to tackle the real challenges of producing a film that conveys the teenage struggle of dualities. That’s why movies like Ghost World are so critical in terms of accurate representation of young adults on the cusp of the rest of their lives. ✉
article by: shelby victoria
visual by: ghost world