Every generation gets the mean girls they deserve, and few have been meaner (or funnier) than the duo at the heart of the mordant satire Ghost World, released in the fall of 2001. Directed by Terry Zwigoff and adapted with Daniel Clowes’ from his graphic novel of the same title, the film dunks on suburbia, art school, wage labor and anything with a whiff of conventionality in the eyes of two terminally sarcastic teenage girls, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). While the characters’ adolescent snottiness is timeless, the film’s pace and lingo feel stamped with turn-of-the-millennium ennui, like a time capsule of snark from a slightly simpler but just-as-shitty era.

The story unfolds in an unnamed but familiar suburban sprawl where fast food joints and strip malls clutter the landscape that seethes with billboards and public buses. Oversaturated colors and packed compositions recreate the meticulous vibe of the graphic novel, which provides the main story beats. Enid and Rebecca, self-imposed outsiders, have just graduated from high school like a couple of convicts released from prison, and their only ambition is to move in together to preserve their us-against-the-world alliance. Enid Coleslaw, with her black bob and eccentric outfits, wields a contemptuous stare that could crumble a brick wall, and Rebecca’s dead-eyed monotone telegraphs her weariness with all that’s uncool in the world. What finally rattles their friendship is a prank gone wrong when they fool a nerdy record collector, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), into thinking he’s meeting a missed connection. A couple of decades older than the girls, he’s exactly the kind of buttoned-down loser they’d usually single out for ridicule, but something about his stoicism and isolation strikes a chord with Enid. Refocusing her contempt into curiosity, she becomes obsessed with learning more about him, and insinuates herself into his lonely life.

Here’s where the film diverges from the plot of the source material, to great effect. The original story of Ghost World, as serialized in Clowes’ acclaimed Eightball comic anthology in the late ‘90s, treats Seymour as just another example of Enid and Rebecca’s penchant for casual cruelty, but Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s adapted screenplay (nominated for an Oscar) digs into the pathos of finding a kindred spirit in an uncaring world. (Puzzlemasters might note that “Enid Coleslaw” is an anagram of “Daniel Clowes.”) The relationship that develops between Enid and Seymour toes the line of inappropriate before stepping right over it, but there’s also something innocent and life-affirming in the way the unlikely pair prod each other into moving beyond their awkwardness and social anxieties. A recurring side character, Norman (Charles C. Stevenson, Jr.), who sits every day at a decommissioned bus stop waiting for a ride that will never come, represents both the despair of being left behind and the possibility of redemption, something which tickles the little piece of Enid that is still capable of hope for the future.

Part of the pleasure of rewatching Ghost World is the sprawling cast of familiar and long-lost character actors. Thora Birch herself, riding high after her acclaimed turn in the recent American Beauty, faded from view shortly after this film, falling victim to Hollywood’s shift towards Paris Hilton types in the early aughts. Scarlett Johansson thrived under that shift, becoming one of the industry’s most bankable stars, but Birch’s intelligence and sarcasm seemed mismatched for the new era. Illeana Douglas and Bob Balaban turn small roles into vivid caricatures of, respectively, vapid art teachers and meek authority figures, and Brad Renfro, who would die of a heroin overdose just a few years later, plays a sweet-natured youth only too happy to be manipulated by the self-serving duo. Steve Buscemi, though, is the secret ingredient in the film’s successful tightrope walk between cynical and sweet. He’s the tonic that cuts through the sarcasm and posturing of the snotty girls, in what is possibly his Steve Buscemi-est role to date.

Ghost World made a splash on the festival circuit during the summer of 2001, and premiered more widely on September 21, 2001. Consider that date for a moment: just ten days after the horror of 9/11, when many Americans were presumably averse to gathering in large groups to enjoy a social-satire comedy. Despite this–or perhaps because of the escape it offered–the film was an art house hit, reflecting and spoofing the blinkered cynicism of a generation that was just on the teetering edge of massive upheaval. More recent coming-of-age comedies like Bo Burnham’s tender and insightful Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s hilarious and zany Booksmart have gone to greater lengths to make their protagonists sympathetic and relatable, but Enid and Rebecca would have disdained such movies with a cold stare and a curled lip. For them, nothing that tries to be cool could ever be cool, and rejecting sincerity was the only way to sincerely live. That ethos was already gone when the film released as the ruins of 9/11 were still smoldering, but the aptly titled Ghost World still offers a bracing glimpse of what it once meant to be young and smart and aimless in America.

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