What to Watch: Capturing the 90s in ‘Reality Bites’ (1994)
A directorial debut proves to be a defining film for a decade.
Reality Bites is a 1994 comedy romance film that launched many careers and became a cult classic, showcasing the lives of twenty-somethings struggling to find themselves as they transition to adults.
Generation X, like any generation with a label, found themselves caught in a crush of change in the early 1990s, one that tried to break from the corporate rock-pop scene of the 80s and into a more freestyling grunge age that in turn, like everything new, got packaged and marketed to the “extreme!” Naturally, Hollywood was cashing in, but a few studios sought to best capture the age with some authenticity, or at least something close to it. Enter Reality Bites, a small film from Universal that became a minor phenomenon on release, dividing critics but absolutely thrilling the target audience, they getting a sense that yeah, someone got it.
That someone was none other than Ben Stiller, who has gone on to have a great success story, producing, directing, and starring in a number of defining comedies and dramas that have earned him a lot of fans and praise. With Reality Bites, it was his first time in the big chair and while he had studio backing, there were concerns that the film would not perform well, especially after the previous Gen X film Singles didn’t fare so well. But Stiller, working with screenplay writer Helen Childress got it on track and even cast himself in the story. Paid off, too.
The movie met with moderate success but became burdened by the Gen X moniker, perhaps driving broader audiences away. Still, over the years, the film has achieved a kind of cult status and is fondly remembered for its terrific young cast and perhaps even more for its soundtrack, a collection of Indie and alt-rock songs that rocketed some to worldwide fame, including Lisa Loeb, who was an unsigned artist at the time, her song “Stay (I Missed You)” reaching the Billboard Top 100. This film is now recognized as a pinnacle of the movement and a landmark for defining an entire generation. Not bad for a debut effort.
THE STORY: Reality Bites follows a group of young people after graduating college who live in Houston. Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) is a coffee house guitarist who can’t keep a job. He’s attracted to Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), an aspiring documentarian who also likes him though they don’t act on it aside from that one time they were drunk. There’s also Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), a sales associate for The Gap who sleeps around and is worried she might have contracted HIV. Her best friend is Sammy (Steve Zahn), a gay man who hasn’t come out. Their lives are unstable and life in the real world isn’t quite as they’d hoped.
One day, Lelaina meets cute with Michael Grates (Stiller), a TV producer for a music station and they begin to date, he eventually promising to air a documentary she’s working on and her relationship with him and with success seemingly possible, she must make a choice between the polar opposites of the company man Michael or the earthy Troy.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The film is a not timeless, there’s no getting around that, it set and driven by the time it was filmed, but that somehow makes it all the more watchable, like a flashback to a fondly remembered era. Stiller is a good director, and he captures much about the early 90s with plenty of pop-cultural references and such that give the film some breadth beyond the small cast.
Honestly though, it’s the characters of course that make it work and both Ryder and Hawke are very good, the two never dismal but appropriately somber. Both actors have a raw angst about them that serve the story well, especially in the latter half as choices are made and fates opened up. Watch them together closely because they do great things together.
A GREAT MOMENT: That said, it’s probably Garofalo who does the best work. Vickie is a sensational character and Garofalo stings with almost every scene, her already mordant style perfect for the cynical Vickie. Take the moment when she and Lelaina are alone in a diner booth and the two women share some honesty. It begins with a humorous question about how it would be better if they were lesbains, but for Vickie becomes a much deeper revelation.
Sitting in the this wonderful olive green half circle booth, Vickie let’s go with an achingly poignant confession of what it’s like to be her right now and Garofalo simply hits it right out and over the wall. Many scripts are well written but it takes the right actor to make it work and every once in awhile a combination comes along that does more than do it right, they do it justice.
But pay attention to Ryder as well, as she heaves on her cigarette, trying to absorb what’s being said, the impact hard because she realizes much about herself as well and how she’s not been the friend maybe she ought to have been. Reality bites.
THE TALLY: Watching the movie again, now more than two decades old, there is an edge to Reality Bites that resonates. Stiller’s direction is a real achievement, giving the film a kind of stage-play feel. He’s never intrusive but looking to let his players work the space, obvious in how the characters move or sometimes don’t. Hawke is a quintessential 90s dreamboat, with long hair, a goatee and that precious pout, easily making desirable, yet Stiller is careful not to have Michael, the yuppy type, be the cartoony villain, but a genuine person and a viable option for Lelaina. That adds much to the story.
While there are some lulls and the pacing gets slow in spots, the charms are still there and there’s great satisfaction in the film’s end. Well worth seeking out, Reality Bites is a true cult classic. It’s what to watch.