Based on the brilliant underground comic book by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World marks director Terry Zwigoff's easy transition to fiction filmmaking after his highly praised documentary Crumb. Co-scripted by Zwigoff and Clowes, whose close collaboration reportedly continued throughout the filmmaking process, the film strays considerably from the comic book's plot and visual style. In his comic book, Clowes pushes the boundaries of the medium with the story's dreamlike narrative, moody blue-toned artwork and touches of surreal absurdity. Rather than imitating its source's unique properties, the film crafts its own rendering, imbued with new characters and a vivid look shaped by the rich photography of Affonso Beato (a Pedro Almodžvar favorite) and the primary-colored design of Edward T. McAvoy's sets and Mary Zophres' costumes. The result is an irreverently humorous and original portrait of teenage girlhood and the modern world of recycled culture that the lead characters inhabit.
The story follows two teenage misfits, Enid (Thora Birch) and her partner-in-crime Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), who both graduate from high school with few plans for the future outside of hanging out, scrutinizing the town's eccentric characters, frequenting such modern-day nightmares as a strip mall's "authentic" '50s diner, and tormenting their common romantic interest, Josh (Brad Renfro). When Enid and Rebecca come across a personals ad, they set up a cruel prank rendezvous between a loner named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and his dream girl. After spying on the no show date, the girls stalk Seymour to his weekly garage record sale, where Enid befriends the obsessive ragtime record collector. As Enid grows closer to Seymour, the girls begin to drift apart, changing their friendship forever.
The enigmatic title of the film refers not only to the haunting ending, but also to all the forgotten characters and places that the modern world has relegated to the strange recesses of the no-name town that Enid and Rebecca inhabit. In this world where every idea and trend is perpetually recycled, these girls' interest in the freaks and the weirdos, who Enid deems "our people," becomes a search for meaning and authenticity. This struggle to find one's place in contemporary culture is rooted in the comic book, though taken to a new level in the film as it plays out most prominently with the character of Seymour. A meticulously art-directed scene inside Seymour's bedroom crammed with 78s and nostalgic memorabilia becomes a window into the world of an out-of-step man who desperately clings to a culturally richer past. It is an image also found in Crumb, thus revealing Zwigoff, Clowes and Robert Crumb's shared nostalgia and attitude about the decline of American culture.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Enid and Rebecca, one of the few genuine elements in this empty world. Unfortunately, Johansson's character is not given enough dimension as a result of the attention paid to Enid and Seymour's relationship. Much of the film's point of view is grounded in Enid's perspective, and while Birch skillfully charges her character with wit and fiery sarcasm, her strength lies in her subtle, discerning glances, which say more than her loud-mouthed quips. Buscemi is well-cast as the insecure and gawky Seymour, playing his character with a Crumb like neurosis.
Ghost World's strongest achievement is the way the film effortlessly moves from comedic situations to cultural criticism, from uncanny interludes to moments of sadness, at times weaving them all within the same scene. The effect is strangely moving.