There’s no shortage of teen movies that focus on the end of high school and the beginning of adulthood. Films like American Pie and She’s All That all count down the final year of high school, building up the excitement for prom, graduation, starting college, and finally beginning the next chapter of your life.
In the real world, things aren’t always as glitzy and glamorous as the movies make out. Back in 2001, Terry Zwigoff brought the film version of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Ghost World to the big screens. Opening on best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) on the day of their high school graduation, we’re given a much more realistic depiction of the ups and downs of leaving mandatory education and why being thrust into adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Both girls are presented as the ‘weirdos’ of their high school, although their class seems to be missing the usual stereotype of a large number of jocks and cheerleaders, with most of the students appearing fairly normal. It’s this banality that Enid and Rebecca seem desperate to escape, with both girls opting to forgo college so that they can immediately move in together instead. This, however, means getting jobs to afford their new lifestyle — something Enid doesn’t appear too keen on.
Immediately after high school finishes, Enid and Rebecca seem to continue with their lives as normal. They meet at the Quality Cafe, visit their friend Josh (Brad Renfro) at the local Sidewinder, and try to involve themselves with the weirdos of the city. While Enid is typically the more confident of the pair when it comes to interacting with people, most of their strange plans — such as following the Satanists or calling Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and pretending to be his blind date — are usually Rebecca’s ideas.
While Enid seems to revel in these situations, claiming that the local weirdos are “their people”, Rebecca starts to pull away from these more childish antics, deciding that they’re not for her anymore. The last plan she suggests to Enid is that they dress up as rich yuppies while viewing apartments to secure a deal. While it’s still a little silly, it’s not up to Enid’s usual standards of a fun time.
The two friends have been planning to move in together since the seventh grade, but now that reality has hit them, they have very different reactions to the situation. While Rebecca is reading listings in the paper, booking viewings, and arranging shopping trips, Enid decides to dye her hair bright green. Rebecca is understandably annoyed, after having just pointed out that they’ll need to look professional to rent an apartment. Enid, however, isn’t a forward planner. She lives in the moment, and right now her “1977 original punk rock look” is the most important thing in her mind.
Rebecca’s switch into understanding what it means to be perceived as an adult has been pretty instant. As soon as she gets her job at a coffee shop, she settles into the reality of adulthood and how much it can suck at times. But she realizes she has to get on with it if she wants her own apartment, and she begins to appreciate the independence a salary can bring. While Rebecca starts to reject the weirdos in the world, Enid begins to look for her weirdos elsewhere as she feels the distance between her and Rebecca growing.
Working in a customer service role is enough to show Rebecca that even the people who are considered the weirdos of the world are just as annoying and unpleasant as everyone else. While they may stand out and look cool to Enid, there’s little difference between them and the general population. “Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel like poisoning everybody,” Rebecca drily tells Enid after being asked how she copes with her new job.
Let’s return to Enid and her green hair. While Rebecca is embracing the perks of being an adult — such as buying whatever color cups she wants or having a fold-down ironing board in her kitchen — Enid is retreating into the things which bring her joy, most of which come from her childhood. Enid’s bedroom looks like it hasn’t been altered much as she’s grown up because it’s filled with stuffed animals, cute toys, and her tiny retro record player. We see her spending a lot of time here, so it’s clear that her bedroom is her sanctuary. Rather than looking forward to having a whole apartment to decorate with her stuff, Enid seems content in her small space and her solitude when she needs it. She revels in the ability to lie and listen to the same record over and over again as her father (Bob Balaban) mostly leaves her alone.
It doesn’t help that the world seems set on dragging Enid back into her high school state too. After failing art class, she needs to take a summer art course so that she can graduate. Her father also starts seeing his ex-girlfriend Maxine (Teri Garr). The reintroduction of Maxine means that Enid can no longer rely on the comfort of her current life because Maxine is set on moving back into the family apartment.
Even if Enid was able to stay in her room forever and ignore the world outside, the changes happening inside her apartment mean that she can’t stay in a bubble. Everything has changed since she left high school and there seems to be no way to avoid it. Enid is given plenty of chances to move on with her life, such as the offer of an art school scholarship, jobs at the cinema and Computer Station, and even the promise of an apartment with Rebecca. And yet she seems to ruin her opportunities in an instant, constantly second-guessing herself and ending up back at square one.
It may seem that Enid is self-destructive in comparison to Rebecca, but the truth is it’s hard for Enid to pick a path when she doesn’t truly know what she wants in life. There’s a huge expectation for teenagers to know exactly what they want to do when they leave high school, but picking a college or university to attend means deciding where you want your whole life to go before you’ve even really had the chance to live it.
Enid has everything going for her. She’s passionate about art and good at it, despite what her art teacher may think. Even the offer of full-time work straight out of high school is an impressive prospect. She also has a super-supportive father who is willing to let her continue living at home if she wants to study and work part-time. But what Enid really needs is more time and less pressure. Even though her father is very caring, he is still putting pressure on her to make decisions and plan her life out. Rebecca is also adding to this by expecting Enid to follow through on a plan they made in the seventh grade. It’s not hard to see how uncomfortable and confused Enid is whenever Rebecca starts talking about apartments or jobs, but she keeps pushing.
It’s for precisely this reason that Enid starts to lean into her relationship with Seymour. After discovering a shared interest in records, and after viewing him as an adult weirdo with a life she covets, Enid finds that she enjoys spending more time with Seymour and less time with Rebecca. His apartment is a mirror image of Enid’s bedroom, packed with collectibles and knick-knacks he’s had for years.
Her conversations with Seymour mostly revolve around music and records to begin with, before she starts to help him get his life sorted by trying to find him a girlfriend. With Seymour, she’s found someone willing to switch off from the real world and avoid the pressures of adult life, allowing her to look at how she can fix his life instead of her own. Sure, Seymour still has to deal with a dull assistant manager job which he barely discusses, but to Enid, he is the closest version of adulthood that she wants to strive towards. Her father and Maxine aren’t providing the type of role model she’s looking for, but Seymour’s life seems fun.
However, after a drunken night together, during which Enid offers to move in with Seymour and look after the apartment until she can get a job, she soon realizes that this isn’t the path she wants to follow either. In her head, integrating into Seymour’s life seems like the best option, but after saying it out loud and sleeping with him, she realizes her mistake. Moving in with Seymour is only moving her problems to another location rather than solving them. Enid has her own problems to deal with, and she quickly realizes that moving in with Seymour would mean she would have to deal with the burden of his issues too.
Both Rebecca and Enid’s experiences demonstrate how different life can be when you finish high school. And while Rebecca’s choices may seem like the easiest — and perhaps even the most successful — to the outside world, it doesn’t mean that she has chosen the correct path. From the moment they graduate, Rebecca is eager to rush out and meet the real world. She also manages to secure her new life with relative ease: while Enid struggles to find a job, Rebecca gets hers quite easily and manages to keep it. She also secures her apartment once she rids herself of Enid’s involvement, which is only slowing her down.
This isn’t the perfect life for Rebecca — a fact she acknowledges frequently in her criticisms of her job — but she’s willing to power through to achieve happiness in the long run. For Rebecca, there isn’t really another option in life. She knows that you have to start at the bottom to make your way to the top, and she’s willing to work for it, and hopefully get where she wants to be eventually.
Enid is passionate and willing to work hard when it suits her, but she doesn’t see the point in wasting her time on anything that doesn’t give her what she needs right there and then. Rather than trying to find a way to be happy in the adult world, Enid clings to the comfort of high school and the things she loved while growing up as a way to reject the future and stay in familiar surroundings. High school didn’t offer what she wanted at the time, but when she’s faced with the scarier realm of adulthood, she feels safer remaining a teenager because at least she knows what to expect.
Enid is definitely the more relatable character because she struggles to find her place in the world, no matter where she searches. In the end, the only thing she’s left with is a dream she had as a child to run away to a place where no one knows her and start all over again. She decides to get on the mysterious bus out of town as a way to solve her problems and hopefully find happiness in life. There’s no destination on the bus and Enid is the only passenger, not paying when she boards but merely taking her seat as the bus pulls away.
There’s no clear answer as to where Enid is off to next, but at least we get to see Enid make a concrete decision for once, and one that is intended to make her — and only her — happy. Even though her decision seems much scarier than Rebecca’s, it’s one that we can sympathize with. Throughout the entire movie, she has been given options for her life, all of which she’s rejected in the hope that she’ll be able to figure out what she wants by herself.
Finally, seeing Norman (Charles C. Stevenson Jr.) leave town on the bus, Enid realizes that the person she relates to most is him. He’s been sitting and waiting for a way out of this town for goodness knows how long, and it eventually arrives for him. Enid has been waiting too, though she’s only realized it now. She decides that the bus is her way out too, and that to be truly happy, she needs to follow her dreams.
As we leave high school, there is pressure all around from guidance counselors, parents, friends, and fellow students to pick your path in life and get it right the first time. Rebecca shows us what we see in so many other movies: she makes the right decisions straight away and gets on with the next stage of her life with very little drama. Her life after high school is a very optimistic depiction of how things can go, but it doesn’t tackle the struggles that we so often face.
Enid, however, shows us that it’s okay to make mistakes and that it’s perfectly normal to have no idea where you want to go or what you want to achieve. Her ability to say no to things and turn down paths that she knows aren’t right for her takes a lot of guts. From the outside, she can seem lazy and unfocussed, but many will relate to her struggles to find her place in society. Sometimes, we all need the courage to know it’s okay to get on that bus and find our own particular type of happiness along the way.