“High school is like the training wheels for the bicycle of real life.” That’s not the main character (Thora Birch) or any of the main characters in “Ghost World,” but their senior class graduation speaker, who’s busy imparting life lessons onstage at the start of the movie. Neither Thora nor her best friend (Scarlett Johansson) are particularly impressed by their classmate’s attempt to turn the ceremony into an After School Special, or for that matter, any aspect of life in their part of California. Thora’s dad (Bob Balaban) tries to interest her in the idea of higher education, but as she’s stuck taking a remedial art class in order to receive her diploma, we can tell from her eye-rolls that this is not going to happen soon.
The two girls may not be ready to pedal away on the “bicycle of real life” just yet, but they’re both on the verge when we meet them, since they are planning on getting a place together. When Thora isn’t tolerating her art class, taught up by Illeana Douglas whose political correctness raises her hackles, she’s hanging out with Scarlett at a fifties style diner. An array of secondary characters, mainly outsiders with a passion for something outside the mainstream, are introduced, including Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who strikes the girls as a real sad sack.(He orders, for example, a vanilla milkshake.) There’s also someone even more pathetic: a guy who’s always waiting for a bus that stopped running a couple of years ago. This is a major metaphor alert, which will pop up later on.
Anyway, Thora and Scarlett play a nasty prank on Steve, but later, Thora gets to know him, after he recommends a record he’s selling to her. Steve’s character works in the fried chicken industry (middle management, not behind the counter), and he also shows Thora a truly racist sign, which is later incorporated into a subplot about the art class. Thora decides to try and fix Steve up, but runs into problems when, in my second favorite line, he tells her that he doesn’t want to meet a woman who shares his interests, because he hates his interests. During one of their conversations, she tells Steve she has a fantasy of just leaving town for good. And after Thora has made and remade her image, tried and been fired from a McJob, and thoroughly flummoxed her art teacher at their student show, she does just that. But it’s a what the hell type ending, the kind that can be debated endlessly afterwards.
“Ghost World,” is based on a comic by Daniel Clowes, and the heroine’s name (Enid Coleslaw) is an anagram of his. When it first came out, Roger Ebert liked it so much in his review that he said he wanted to give the movie a hug. While I would not go that far, I would definitely not mind taking it out for coffee, or maybe a vanilla milkshake.