Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Black Widow postponed, we’re looking back on the best performances by Scarlett Johansson.
In the summer of 2001, when Ghost World arrived in theaters, Scarlett Johansson was 16 years old. She’d been appearing in movies since age 9, and had already made a decent-sized splash as a child actor, doing memorable work in Lisa Krueger’s runaway-sisters saga Manny & Lo (1996) and in Robert Redford’s adaptation of The Horse Whisperer (1998). But those were still very much tween performances. Ghost World represented Johansson’s first tentative steps into adulthood—indeed, the film opens with her character’s graduation from high school, and in one sense pivots on the attempt to rent an apartment. On the surface, this role doesn’t offer her a whole lot to do, especially compared to co-stars Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi; she’s mostly asked to be the reactive sidekick, perpetually ready with a snarky remark. But it takes a truly great actor to make a tremendous impact while seeming to do nothing, and Ghost World wouldn’t work without Johansson’s stealthy tugs on the audience’s buried normcore impulses.
It can be easy to miss this, because the movie, much more than Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (from which it was adapted by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff), focuses on Enid Coleslaw (Birch), with Enid’s best friend, Becky (Johansson), serving as a secondary figure. When the two young women find an especially dorky-sounding “missed connection” ad, they phone Seymour (Buscemi), the guy who placed it, and arrange a meeting at which they spy on and ridicule him from across the diner. Seymour is a composite of two minor characters in the book, but Enid’s growing friendship with him, as she finds herself identifying more and more with his alienation from modern society, becomes the film version’s narrative engine. What gives Ghost World its sting, however, is the gradual, all but imperceptible disintegration of Enid and Becky’s friendship—a trajectory that we experience almost exclusively from Enid’s point of view.
That’s why Johansson’s performance is so crucial, and so remarkable. At 16 (or possibly even only 15 at the time of shooting), she already had a remarkable knack for simply existing in front of the camera. You never catch her acting as Becky, never see her strain for a laugh or beg for the viewer’s sympathy. And the degree of difficulty is high, because she’s stuck in an intensely unsympathetic position, at least relative to the film’s cynical-verging-on-nihilistic sensibility. Becky is the pragmatist, telling Enid that the best way for them to find a good apartment is “to convince people that we’re, like, these totally rich yuppies.” She’s the nag, constantly prodding Enid to get some sort of McJob (Becky herself works at a coffee shop) so that they can afford to rent said apartment. Ultimately, she’s the sellout, showing Enid a pull-down ironing board with the chipper enthusiasm of a housewife in a vintage commercial. That she doesn’t come across as a shallow caricature of nascent materialism—that she retains a strong sense of individuality even as we watch her slowly drift away from Enid and toward conventional adult responsibility—is a testament to Johansson’s uncannily relaxed naturalism. Ghost World dearly loves its twin misanthropes, Enid and Seymour, but Zwigoff made a point of finding a Becky who could make a compelling case for the ordinary. And Johansson—who’d go on to play a wide variety of exceptional humans and non-humans—made it look easy.
Availability: Ghost World is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and DirecTV, and may be available via Hoopla from some libraries. It can also be digitally rented from Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.