The best coming-of-age movies situate their protagonists in different stages of life, such as early adolescence (“Eighth Grade,” “Stand By Me”), peak teenhood (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Mean Girls,” “The Breakfast Club”), and the post-collegiate period (“The Graduate”). Yet the phase most fraught with anxiety for many young adults is that liminal span of time when they are about to or have just graduated high school, and the prospect of college looms. Great movies like “Risky Business,” “Ladybird,” and even the recent “Funny Pages” capture the deep uncertainty behind the pre-college façade of bravado and apathy — two divine rights of every teenager.
The revival of the 2001 film “Ghost World” at the IFC Center confirms it as one of the classics of the latter subgenre of the coming-of-age film. The movie’s exquisite rendering of teenage angst begins immediately, with our heroine Enid finding out post-graduation ceremony that she hasn’t actually graduated because she failed art class and needs to re-take it in the summer. The irony cuts deep for Enid, as she’s a pretty capable illustrator and caricaturist. Even her best friend Rebecca calls her a “loser.”
Thus begins their unsettled summer, when they kinda look for jobs and sorta talk about the future while hanging out at coffee shops. They do have one concrete goal: to find an apartment so they can be roommates and generally make fun of the world together, their primary pastime. Enid and Rebecca are “cool kids,” and their disdain for nearly everything bonds them as only teenage friendships can. Yet fissures are apparent, even if not to the duo; Enid is almost goth in her style and demeanor, while Rebecca is gentler and girlish in appearance despite her gruff, bored voice.
That voice belongs to Scarlett Johansson, and it’s great to see her in an early role, before “Lost in Translation” skyrocketed her to fame and prior to her elevation to “Avenger” status. Enid is played by Thora Birch, who, while not enjoying the same success as Ms. Johansson, has found steady work in film and television.
Ms. Birch is perfect in “Ghost World,” with her withering eyerolls and dry delivery of caustic comments marking her as a typical teenager. Difficult characters need a few redemptive qualities, though, and Enid’s transition from know-it-all teenager to somewhat mature woman materializes with the help of Seymour, a nerdy, middle-aged guy played by the one and only Steve Buscemi.
Driven by guilt after calling Seymour and falsely claiming to be a woman interested in getting to know him, Enid makes it her mission to find a girlfriend for the hapless loner after befriending him at a garage sale. She soon discovers that Seymour isn’t as uncool as she initially thought — he likes kitschy stuff and old records, as she does — and that she may even want to be more than just friends. It doesn’t occur to Enid that other factors are driving her to seek out his comforting company, like the fact that her single father is seeing a woman she dislikes, and that she and Rebecca are growing apart.
Director Terry Zwigoff and his fellow screenwriter Daniel Clowes (who wrote the graphic novel on which the movie is based) hit on so many moments of truth, such as how teens subtly one up each other to see who can say the most offensive or dismissive comment, and how a young person can play a favorite song over and over again. And seeing Mr. Buscemi’s Seymour character in an obnoxious sports bar as an “authentic” blues band starts playing is comic gold.
There are a few mentions of money in “Ghost World,” but perhaps there should be more financial anxiety. After all, it’s one of the key issues of becoming an adult: Without help from a parent, how will one pay to sustain a lifestyle of one’s own? Another rite of passage to adulthood is sex, and while the movie does address this, it completely avoids the issue of the age difference between Enid and Seymour. Were the early aughts a simpler time, when a teenage woman sleeping with an older man raised fewer eyebrows? I saw “Ghost World” then and can’t remember what I thought of the relationship, but now it comes off as uncomfortable at best.
One element that remains fresh is the movie’s skewering of artistic pieties. At one point as Enid attends her remedial art class throughout the summer, the teacher (Illeana Douglas) shows the students a turgid video piece she created called “Mirror, Father, Mirror,” and the lampoon of what many people consider art is spot-on and worth the price of admission alone.
“Everyone’s too stupid,” Enid says once, and she implies it several times with her facial reactions. Based on the evidence of her teacher’s short film, not to mention the many societal inanities “Ghost World” portrays or even Enid’s own youthful idiocy, we might channel our eternal teenager and agree with her.