They have cast themselves as outcasts. Standing apart at their high school graduation, they gaze at the proceedings from the Olympus of their scorn. "This is so bad it's good," says Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Enid (Thora Birch) corrects her only friend: "This is so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again." The girls are subtle connoisseurs of bad. They have a favorite lousy comedian, ugly doll, porno store and, eventually, a favorite pathetic nerd. That's Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who collects old records and fresh psychic wounds. "I would kill to have stuff like this!" Enid enthuses when she sees Seymour's stash of 78s. "Please," he dourly replies, "go ahead and kill me."
Finally! After a heat rash of teen comedies that promote adolescence as a frenetic party where every kid pairs off with a comely partner and has fabulous sex, here comes the genre's cleansing, toxic antidote--Ghost World, the Heathers of the new century, the movie that shows how morose and furtive an ordeal growing up can be. Residing both within Enid and Rebecca and at an ironic distance from them, the film allows the viewer to see them--and Seymour, that other displaced person--with a kind of detached sympathy. When Seymour calls himself "an amusingly cranky eccentric curiosity," he might be describing the film as well.
Ghost World originated in Eightball, a serial comic book by Daniel Clowes, whose anatomizing of anomie--Pussey!, David Boring--has made him the R. Crumb of Generation Y. (The Ghost World title is graffiti Clowes saw on a wall in Chicago.) Enid and Rebecca first appeared in 1993. "The characters came to me spontaneously, fully formed, when I drew them in my sketchbook," says Clowes in his Oakland, Calif., home. "They felt like two parts of my personality. Enid is the id, dissatisfied with everything, not sure where she belongs; Rebecca is more pragmatic, trying to make the best of it. That's my inner conflict."
The two would have stayed on the page if not for Terry Zwigoff, best known for Crumb, his 1994 documentary on the cartoonist. Eager to direct a fiction feature, the San Francisco filmmaker got in touch with Clowes to work on Ghost World. At first, they tried a close adaptation of the comic. "It wasn't working," Clowes says. "We were sustaining the corpse of something. So we took little tangents and enlarged them, and took things that were large in the comic and shrank them down to tangents. It was changed at the atomic level." Clowes remained an active force during the shoot. "I have never seen a writer on set so much," says Johansson. "I kept telling him, 'Why are you here? You're the writer.' Joking, obviously."