Welcome to the mid 90s, when you didn’t have to have glossy hair, a svelte body, or perfect clothes to be attractive. When grunge ruled, and MTV was actually interesting. I was only nine in 1994 when Reality Bites came out, which in some ways has made it more nostalgic for me, because although I didn’t understand half of it, I thought these characters were so damn cool that they made a permanent impression on me. Years later as I was watching it again, just after graduating from college, it was strange because even after having seen it dozens of times, I could suddenly relate to it.
Reality Bites is the quintessential Gen-X film. The story centers around a group of friends who’ve just recently graduated from college (although one of them dropped out) and are living and working in Houston, Texas. Lelaina (Winona Ryder) was the valedictorian of her university and is an aspiring video artist, Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) is a promiscuous retail manager at the Gap, Sammy (Steve Zahn)—well I’m not sure what he does, but he’s gay and struggling to come out to his parents, and Troy (Ethan Hawke) an unemployed genius who thinks he has all the answers.
A love triangle sits at the heart of this film. Lelaina and Troy, who’ve been long time friends with obvious sexual tension often leading to hostility, form the first two points. The third point is occupied by yuppie TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller) who also directed the film. Lelaina is stuck between a stable, successful guy who obviously likes her, and a moody (but sexy) friend who is hot-and-cold towards her. The film also deals with AIDS, homosexuality, growing up, figuring out who you are, and of course falling in love. Those are all big issues, but they’re dealt with in a natural and human way, the weight of the issues isn’t thrown in your face, and if it is, it’s followed by a laugh.
There aren’t too many movies that touch on art and its meaning. When the documentary Lelaina has been passionately working on for years is given the MTV/Real World editing treatment by Michael’s TV station, she is not only disappointed in him, but devastated that something with so much meaning to her was butchered and reformed into something both embarrassing and unrecognizable. It’s an unfortunate result of having your work recognized, others often forget that artwork is an extension of a person, and not a thing to be corrupted in order to fit a need.
Ultimately a lot of this film revolves around which guy Lelaina will choose, but it’s the details that make it great. There are tons of cameos—David Spade, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Renée Zellweger, and Anne Meara (Stiller’s mom) to name a few. Swoosie Kurtz is perfect as Lelaina’s big-haired, Texan mother, wearing one of the most amazing shoulder-padded, puffy-painted T-shirts I’ve ever seen. This film is ripe with excellent 90s fashion, from Vickie’s lunchbox purses and 60s mini dresses to Lelaina’s grungy shirt-dresses and mary-janes. We also get to see just how gorgeous Winona Ryder is, as she spends most of the movie in baggy t-shirts, unflattering pants and very little makeup, while still looking enviously beautiful.
The depictions of friendship in this film are incredibly frank—the fights, the fun, it all feels true to life and the actors pull it off really well. I especially love the relationship between Lelaina and Vickie, it doesn’t come off like we are being forced to believe these people are friends, it’s just obvious that they are, even when they’re mean to each other. Janeane Garofalo manages to give her character depth without turning into a cliché. The scene in the diner where she discusses her fear of testing positive for HIV is both really funny and really moving. Reality Bites is basically just a romantic comedy, but the supporting characters lend a charm to the story, they take it down a notch while still remaining three-dimensional characters. Without Vickie and Sammy telling Lelaina to get her ass off the couch and stop calling Latoya Jackson’s psychic friends, you wouldn’t have much of a story.
The film has an awesome soundtrack too, U2, The Knack, Juliana Hatfield, Lenny Kravitz, and of course Peter Frampton. The scene featuring the Knack’s My Sharona is one of the most iconic in the film, and who could forget the Lisa Loeb song Stay and the accompanying video which ran on MTV Constantly. Ethan Hawke actually discovered Lisa Loeb, and the use of her song on the Reality Bites soundtrack propelled her song to #1 before she had even been signed.
I can’t think of any other film that captures the fears and struggles of the post-college years as well as this one. It’s probably one of the most difficult times in life. You’re supposed to be an adult, but if you’ve been in school your whole life, it’s a major shock when you’re thrown into the real world and told to sink or swim. Things have only gotten worse with the recession, and the kids who have just graduated from college this year have even fewer opportunities to get started in their chosen field. You come out of college with a whole lot of (often useless) knowledge, a huge pile of debt, meager life skills, and no idea what you want to do with yourself. Even if you do have an idea of what you want, you have to figure out how to do it, and in the meantime everyone keeps asking you what your plans are. Come to think of it, that pressure isn’t just reserved for recent college grads, but everyone.
I’ve heard people talk about how annoying this film is, or how whiny or pretentious it is, and yes, I can see it, but I think that’s part of the charm. It’s sort of implied that the audience has one-up on these characters. They’re 23, but they think they know everything, they’re incredibly smart, but they haven’t lived at all, and all of them are remarkably naive. I’m not really a Ben Stiller fan, but one of my favorite moments in this film comes when his character offers perfect, and funny insight into Troy’s personality by using a reference to Hamlet’s Yorick monologue. While Troy is all abstract thought and irony—laughing at all the people who care so much, he’s the joke, because nobody wants to be around him.
Over the course of the movie all the characters learn a major lesson; they don’t have anything figured out, but it’s alright, because neither does anyone else. Part of growing up is learning that you don’t have control over anything, and the only real power any of us have, is over who we decide to be.
This era is having a revival right now, so if you want to get the look check out the fashions below. Have a great weekend, eat some good food, have some fun, and please tell some people about this blog!
$50 – modcloth.com
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28 GBP – devoted2vintage.co.uk
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14 GBP – avalaya.com
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$13 – sweetfactory.com