I bought Reality Bites on VHS in 1995, when I was 16, in those primitive days when you had to wait around a year to see a movie you’d missed in the theater. As I paid, my dad asked the sales clerk what it was about. “It’s a minor slacker film that teens seem to love,” the clerk sighed, rolling his eyes.
Yeah, he was rude. But he wasn’t wrong. Within the first few frames, I was obsessed. It was soon competing with When Harry Met Sally as my go-to movie when I was feeling low, which meant I watched it on at least a monthly basis. If I believed in feeling guilty about pop culture, this film would top my “guilty pleasures” list.
Sure, it’s flawed. It’s about a group of white, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied twenty-somethings who haven’t got many real problems but act like they have. Characters chain smoke, throw around the word “retarded” as if it weren’t offensive, turn down jobs they think are beneath them even when they have no other options, and are sometimes way too mean to their friends.
Worst of all, we’re supposed to believe that cruel, slobby Troy, played by Ethan Hawke, is a better match for Winona Ryder’s Lelaina than Michael, played by director Ben Stiller, who admires her work and treats her with respect, even if he is a yuppie. (Remember them?) If it were made today, I hope she’d end up with neither of them, but Stiller’s character only needs a couple of tweaks to be a good guy, while Hawke’s needs a lobotomy.
The film’s anti-consumerist message is confused by the continual dropping of brand names, and there’s a naivetÃ© to the script which may be because screenwriter Helen Childress was just 19 when she turned in the first draft, or may be because it’s from a more innocent decade. (Pre-Dubya, pre-9/11, pre-home Internet, we all had less to worry about and more time to self-obsess.)
But I think it still holds up, much more so than its ’80s equivalents, like the flimsy and fashion-challenged About Last Night. There’s still a lot to love about Reality Bites, not least Janeane Garofalo in arguably her best role.
As Vickie Miner, she wears vintage dresses, carries a retro lunch tin to work at The Gap, has her bangs cut way too short, smokes and wisecracks her way through life, and is unabashedly sexual. She’s the one who encourages the others to dance to “My Sharona” in the gas station in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, and she’s the one who helps her friends out the most, whether they need tough love or want to “pre-enact” coming out to their mother, as Steve Zahn’s Sammy does.
She talks like a Diablo Cody character way before her time, coining terms like “negatory” and “let’s locomote” and delivering some of the best lines in the movie (“Who told you that, your psychic partner?”). I was devastated to see her show up all self-conscious and schlubby in 1996’s The Truth About Cats and Dogs, so embarrassed to be short and brunette that she pretends to look like Uma Thurman in order to get a guy to like her. WTF? Any guy should be flattered that Vickie Miner would consider pulling back her rainbow bed sheets for him on a regular basis. She’s an icon.
Winona Ryder’s pretty iconic here, too. She’s whiny and needs to pull herself together, but she’s funny as well, especially in the failed job interview montage (my favorite is when she can’t do mental arithmetic and and keeps shouting higher and higher numbers until David Spade tells her, “It’s not an auction.”), and in her pixie haircut and pre-loved jeans she looks great without being overtly glamorous or stereotypically “feminine” (she can’t even be bothered with a bra most of the time), which is refreshing.
The soundtrack is quintessentially ’90s, with Crowded House and World Party and Juliana Hatfield, plus a remix of Squeeze’s “Tempted” and the uber-catchy (just don’t pay too close attention to the words) “My Sharona.” And of course, there’s “Stay” by Lisa Loeb, which was a huge hit and still sounds great today. I listened to the soundtrack CD over and over while I worked on a huge English project back in ’97, and I got an A+, so it may also ensure high school level academic brilliance.
I like that not everything is neatly wrapped up by the end of the movie: Lelaina doesn’t have a job, Troy’s dad isn’t cured of cancer, coming out helps Sammy in some ways and makes his life more painful in others.
Sure, the message about valuing artistic integrity over money is a familiar refrain in this age of blogging, but it’s still worth remembering. Plenty of young people now are feeling the same sense of disaffection and disconnection from the mainstream as the characters in Reality Bites. They’re even wearing some of the same clothes.
Although it’s often pegged as a (minor) slacker movie, Reality Bites is much more than an ode to Diet Coke, Good Times, and the joy of getting stoned. It’s about the necessity of coming to terms with responsibility, the ways we have to compromise our ideals for reality (which bites!) and the fact that life doesn’t always go according to plan. In a rare moment of sensitivity and insight, Troy tells Lelaina, “The only thing you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself.”
I’m hoping that’s still true when those numbers are reversed.