Reality Bites September 10, 2016
“All you have to be at twenty-three is yourself,” a character reassures Winona Ryder’s Lelaina after an occupational crisis leaves her feeling worthless in 1994’s Reality Bites. But such positively minded messages are easier said than accomplished when one’s life appears to be crumbling. Following a five-year stint at a respected university, most expect to find success immediately, and the lull that oftentimes occurs shortly after graduation commences is capable of being soul-crushing. You can thumb through the autobiographies of all your childhood heroes and notice that the majority of them did not become icons in their mid-twenties all you want, but when you have yourself to live with and you’re not meeting your own high standards, it’s hard to tell yourself that good things are waiting around the corner when everything seems to be falling apart.
In the twenty-two years since its release, Reality Bites has become a touchstone in the capturing of the woes that befell Generation X. Arguably, few other movies have so authentically portrayed the confusions and the lows of being a young adult trying to navigate the world. Its Helen Childress penned screenplay beautifully engages with the youthfully scary unknowns of marriage, professional happiness, and personal contentment, and the direction, by a twenty-nine-year-old Ben Stiller, validly characterizes such adversities and makes them universal.
The film follows the trials and tribulations that overtake the lives of a quartet of friends in the wake of college graduation. Their leader, Lelaina, was valedictorian but is struggling to find the right job in a field that isn’t ready to have her. Her sidekick, Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), declares that all she learned in college was her Social Security number; currently, she’s working as an assistant manager at the Gap, covering her misery in wry wit to tell herself otherwise. Sammy (Steve Zahn) is perhaps occupationally steady but is nonetheless tormented by his still being in the closet; and Troy (Ethan Hawke), whom Lelaina head-scratchingly considers to be her best friend, is a slacker who reassures his ego that his coffeehouse homed musical performances will eventually go somewhere bigger than himself.
We’ll never know if these characters do end up finding the happiness they’re desperately seeking - focused on are their attempts to get to that point - but while Reality Bites exceptionally distinguishes the frustrations of its characters and intelligently brings empathetic urgency to the bountiful dissensions that overwhelm people in their twenties, it fails in the creation of its central conflict, which is the love triangle that exists between Lelaina, Troy, and an older man, Michael (Stiller), who’s also professionally interested in her.
Childress is convinced that the right guy for our leading lady is Troy, despite the fact that he’s a selfish poser who reads ponderous novels immersed in existentialism as he combs his greasy hair and strokes his three-day beard, waiting for his next opportunity to humiliate her. He treats her harshly more than he treats her right, but we’re made to believe that it’s all a ruse to cover inner conflict. He doesn’t really mean to be so bad; some people are just unconventional in how they show their love for someone.
But supposedly Michael is miles worse, if only because he accidentally botches Lelaina’s shot at notoriety. Though he’s more considerate of, more interested in, and more patient with her than Troy could ever be, he’s made out to be the film’s villain, a backward notion that dramatically inhibits Reality Bites from being the great movie it has the potential to be. When a film doesn’t seem to know its characters as well as its audience does, irreversible is the damage done to its overarching success.
And so the movie is only occasionally terrific, greatly hindered by the reality that maybe it isn’t so wise after all. But Ryder is luminous, Garofalo an embodiment of barbed shrewdness, Hawke genuinely detestable. Reality Bites is excellent until it isn’t anymore, and it’s a shame that it undermines its acumen with the forced fakery that it mostly curbs. B-