As a teenager in the late eighties, Winona Ryder was my hero. An article in either Bop! or Tiger Beat once misidentified her birthday as the same as mine, so in my vapid teenage way I felt, you know, really connected to her. I’m not sure if it was Dracula or finding out we were not birthday twins that ended my girl crush, but for a time between 1987 – 1994 or so, she was the cats pajamas.
Winona, the antithesis twin of my cornfed midwestern tall girl with glasses aesthetic, was the lead in two movies that I feel do a better job of defining Generation X than anything Brett Easton Ellis can pound out between PBR benders – Heathers and Reality Bites.
Heathers is a movie that would never, ever be greenlit today. In the days before boys in trench coats really murdered their classmates, however, Heathers was an unapologetic dark comedy. While not really evident in the following trailer (Lethal Attraction was the European title, yikes.), Heathers was the polar opposite of every John Hughes feel good teen movie that had preceded it .
Instead of writing essays about how we’re all alike on the inside or making a prom dress out of a canopy bed to impress a rich boy, Ryder’s Veronica and Christian Slater’s JD kill three people in the first 45 minutes of the film. Gen X cheered. Wizened by the knowledge Johnny Castle and Jake Ryan were as real as Santa Claus, we finally saw a movie that addressed what high school was really like with delicious, biting satire. There are no heroes in Heathers. There are a few minor characters who earn our sympathy in the film, but most of the speaking roles in Heathers are assholes. It’s a concept as old as theater, but Heathers was the first time a lot of people my age were introduced to the humor that makes Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office and Sascha Baron Cohen so popular now.
Viewing Heathers for the first time was one of those moments when the world suddenly seemed exponentially bigger than it had the day before; one of a thousand similar moments when everything was new and fresh and didn’t creak when I bent it. After rewatching it recently, I think it stands up pretty well for a twenty+ year old comedy about sociopaths. I’m curious if it’s something that will be picked up by post-X generations, like The Cure and oversized floral dresses.
Reality Bites doesn’t hold up nearly as well, I’m sad to say. I remember loving this movie like peanut butter when I was fresh out of college with a Bachelor of Arts in Useless. Here’s the trailer to refresh your memory:
The entire cast is still adorable, but after all this time Reality Bites feels kind of like Gen X Godspell without the tunes or religious themes. The terrible dialogue isn’t helped by Winona’s half assed performance or Ethan Hawke’s sadfaces, but the rest of the cast is charming enough to sell really horrific lines. While it’s entirely possible I loved this movie in my 20’s because I was as whiny and entitled as it is, I was also still blinded by my belief Winona could do anything.
Heathers and Reality Bites bookended what I like to call my wild years. Like Heathers, I approached eminent adulthood with cynicism, a sense of humor and a collection of colorful tights. Like Reality Bites, my actual first years as a grown up were filled with creative bill payment schemes, misguided delusions of grandeur and terrible music.