When I was living out my depression like a sullen teen, I wrote comic artist Dan Clowes a half-joking letter asking him for his hand in marriage. He wrote back. He said something akin to, "My wife wouldn't like that so much." Thinking about it now, I don't fixate on the fact that I was so pathetic and isolated I wrote a love letter to a famous person (and a comic artist, at that). Instead, I think about how much that scenario mimics the basic premise of Ghost World, the film based on Clowes' brilliant eponymous comic book. So much so, that I doubt I was the first despondent youth to fawn over Clowes' work, and love him from afar.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), Ghost World is the story of Enid (American Beauty's Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), two misanthropic best friends who've just graduated from high school. They're intelligent and artistic--creative underachievers--and completely alienated from their bucolic community. Unfocused and bored with their surroundings, they play a mean-hearted joke on nerdy middle-ager Seymour (the fucking amazing Steve Buscemi, who looks exactly like a Clowes character without even trying). Because mean-hearted jokes are always more fun in theory than in practice, Enid starts to feel guilty and follows Seymour around. Soon, they are inseparable, bonded by their love of old records and complete disdain for most things living.
Birch is a mostly perfect Enid, slumped over and stompy a la Sassy circa 1992, muttering her lines without even opening her mouth. She tries to hide her idealism beneath her snide comments, but she glows when she is at frumpy Seymour's side. He collects records, blues 78s, and is the ultimate social reject. But he makes Enid feel like she's important, and she makes Seymour feel like he's worthwhile.
Like most high school summers, nothing immediately remarkable occurs in the lives of Enid, Rebecca, and Seymour--nobody gets killed, nobody gets pregnant, nobody wins the lottery. That's why Ghost World is such an excellent movie: it's exactly like real life, illustrating the slow changes that happen--Rebecca and Enid growing apart, Enid loving Seymour, but trying to fix him up with women more his age, Enid being angry at everyone, but just trying to figure out herself. These are the elements of life. They are not spectacular; they are totally mundane. But when you look beneath the surface, they are magical. As with all Clowes' characters (particularly in Ghost World, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and the "David Boring" series in Eightball), the best parts examine the bizarreness in normality, and Zwigoff captures this subtly. For instance, in a scene where Enid and Rebecca are having an argument, a pregnant, smoking woman with a beer in her hand walks behind them in the background. She's an extra, a woman on the periphery, and she's not written into the story, except that she is the story. She embodies reality and anomaly, and that is the heart of Ghost World.
On the postcard in which Clowes rejected my marriage proposal, he wrote, "You should hold out for somebody better." In Ghost World, Enid is learning this same lesson. She knows that the best people in the world are the ones who tend to be the freakiest, but the biggest lesson for her (and all of us) is seeing the worth within herself.