Spoilers for a mediocre movie that’s been out for 23 years below.
My viewing of this movie has been roughly a decade in the making. When I was fourteen, I truly believed I was the coolest, most introspective teenager who ever lived. As time has passed, I am increasingly mystified as to how I gained Ferris Bueller levels of confidence, considering that I had blunt bangs about a quarter of an inch thick, switched up my braces colors to match the changing seasons, and would relax after a long day of Catholic school with a viewing of a Jonas Brothers concert DVD. Despite all of this, I was convinced I was cool and, as any try hard teenager thinks, was born in the wrong decade. I am a 90s baby but I wanted to be a 90s teen. My 90s infatuation began in eighth grade and lasted throughout high school, a time period in which I watched 10 Things I Hate About You until my DVD became irreparably scratched, briefly considered going vegan in the name of River Phoenix, and developed an obsession with Nirvana that ultimately led me to announce to my friend Colleen that I was going to name my future child Ramona Cobain. Colleen rightfully cried laughing, which, of course, infuriated me. Most importantly, like any 90s devotee, I loved Winona Ryder, my misunderstood, chain smoking teen queen. Beetlejuice, Heathers, Girl, Interrupted – she invented teenage iconoclasm and looked chic doing it. I always meant to make my way to Reality Bites, but for some reason never did. I guess it just got lost in the varying waves of my pop culture obsessions. Still, now that I finally sat down to watch it at age 23, my teenage anticipation made me fully expect to love every bit of this movie.
Unfortunately, not everything from the 90s has aged well.
Reality Bites came out in 1994 and centers on a group of friends – Lelaina (Queen Winona), Troy (Ethan Hawke), Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), and Sammy (Steve Zahn) – who recently graduated college and are living in Houston. After an opening scene where Lelaina, the valedictorian, gives a speech that is somehow anti-consumerist? Honestly, I have no because the audience only catches the ending where she rallies on about how her generation won’t work 80 hours a week for a BMW and I can only assume that’s where her point was going. Basically, the tone is set and Lelaina and her friends are painted as somewhat jaded Gen Xers who would probably think Friends is corny. There’s a lot of shaky cam footage that is revealed to be apart of Lelaina’s ongoing documentary, which, in her own words, is about “my friends, but it’s really about people who are trying to find their own identity without having any real role models or heroes or anything.”
It’s a shame that Reality Bites isn’t actually Lelaina’s full length documentary, because some of the most interesting portions of the movie were the small glimpses the audience gets into her documentary. Rather than focusing on Lelaina’s love life (more on that below), through the documentary we learn that Vickie is facing a potential HIV scare and hear about Sammy’s anxiety over coming out as gay to his conservative parents. Their existential dread doesn’t only center around finding a “good” job, but they are forced to confront fears about the quality of life they will have and having their health taken from them. After coming out to his unaccepting mom, Sammy says in an interview for Lelaina’s documentary, “I think the real reason that I’ve been celibate so long isn’t because I’m terrified of the big ‘A’ but because I can’t really start my life without being honest about who I am. I want to be in there, too. I want to feel miserable and happy… I want to be let back in the house.” It’s the best scene in the movie and adds some needed earnestness in a film that really hits you over the head with anti consumerism irony and monotone humor.
Back to the non-documentary portions of Reality Bites. In addition to working on her documentary and struggling to hold down a job, Lelaina has the added stress of being in the middle of a love triangle between two apparently polar opposite men – Michael (Ben Stiller) and Troy. Michael is a TV exec for a station called “In Your Face TV” (yikes) which is described as “MTV, but with an edge” – so I guess MTV in the 90s minus The Real World? Anyway, Lelaina and Michael meet after she accidentally flicks her cigarette out of her car and onto his dashboard, causing him to panic and crash. It’s an aggressive meet cute, but this is the apathetic 90s and Reality Bites refuses your simple carelessly-bump-into-each-other-and-lock-eyes introduction. Instead of suing Lelaina, Michael decides to flirt with her and they begin dating. He’s genuinely passionate about her documentary and thinks it’d be great for In Your Face TV but Lelaina rejects the offer because she doesn’t want to “commercialize it.” I can just feel the collective balling of fists from real life screenwriters who would likely kill for such an easy in.Michael is honestly a pretty decent guy – he really admires Lelaina’s perspective on life and believes in her future as an artist. He believes in Lelaina’s work so much so that he ignores Lelaina and eventually brings a cut of her documentary to an exec meeting at In Your Face TV. Though this is directly disobeying Lelaina’s earlier wishes, she’s lost a job, had several failed interviews, and realized the limits of her artistic integrity, so she’s thrilled.
Unfortunately,Michael’s downfall occurs when he and Lelaina attend a trailer screening for her documentary, which has been cut in a way that has a mocking tone toward Lelaina and her friends and is renamed Reality Bites. Side note – this kind of trick still works on me. When the trailer revealed the title of the documentary was Reality Bites, I whispered “oooh!” Anyway, this scene is basically the visual form of baby boomer skepticism toward Gen X, and Lelaina is devastated. She blames Michael even though, as he repeatedly explains, he had no idea they were going to cast a condescending tone on her work and offers to fly her out to New York so she can fight for her vision.
Lelaina is a little self serious about her documentary, but I understand where she’s coming from. Having ambitions without a concrete road map is frustrating. In your twenties, you want to do so much with your life and are beginning to “put yourself out there” in a way that you may not have done before – by sharing your ideas and plans for the future. You want to prove your worth, to be looked at as someone whose thoughts are valid and can contribute in some way. Still, you likely don’t have a ton of life experience in your twenties, so it’s easy to be written off as naive or be told your anxieties won’t even matter one day (even though this likely is true). To give an especially eye roll worthy metaphor, Lelaina’s situation is like telling someone you want to have a voice that matters and them repeating that back to you in a sarcastic tone. Basically, it never feels good to be mocked, especially when it’s in a room full of TV executives (or so I imagine).
Troy, our other love interest, is Lelaina’s former classmate turned drop out who is pursuing a music career and crashing on Lelaina’s couch. He’s bitterly sarcastic and he answers the phone by saying “hello, you’ve reached the winter of our discontent,” which I’d argue makes him just as insufferable as the stereotypical popular asshole jock. The only real difference is that Troy trades a polo for a flannel. Just like the usual popular jock, Troy only displays affection for Lelaina when he thinks he has an opportunity to make more of their friendship. When Lelaina rejects his advances, she’s essentially no longer of use to Troy and he refuses to be her friend again. Troy bitterly sulks around and mocks Lelaina for dating Michael, “a yuppie.”
When Lelaina gets angry with Michael after the screening of her documentary trailer, Troy uses it as an opportunity to capitalize on Lelaina’s vulnerable state. He tells her that that she breaks his heart over and over again but he still loves her, and they sleep together. If I watched this movie when I was 13, I’m sure I would think that this scene was the epitome of bohemian love. Now, however, ten years later and a basic psych course under my belt, I see that this is somewhat lazy manipulation that surely does not make up for all the rude, condescending comments Troy makes throughout this movie to Lelaina. These comments ultimately culminate in Troy ignoring Lelaina again after they sleep together, explaining to her that he ignored her because he was freaked out, and then dedicating the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” to her, a song about a sexually frustrated boy begging someone to have sex with him. Cool! Somehow, despite all of this and despite Troy never being held accountable or apologizing for his erratic behavior, Lelaina forgives Troy and chooses him over Michael.
It’s probably because I’ve never before sat down with the intent of watching a list of movies concerned with life after graduation, but I have never noticed how many movies present an attractive chauvinist and demand that the audience love him. Troy was overwhelmingly self obsessed, constantly turns polite conversation into nihilist mumbling, and his brand of humor can be pretty much summed up as sarcastically quoting commercials to make some unclear point about capitalism. These are all offenses that I will not allow in a love interest! I’m not sure what this trend of bad love interests who somehow manage to manipulate girls into returning their feelings means. Maybe movie studios confuse consistent passive aggressive comments as enduring signs of affection? I’m not sure, but I’m starting to think that a sign of maturity is when you watch a movie and don’t root for a certain love interest just based on their hotness.
- I cannot in good conscience post this blog without pointing out that the criminally underrated Renee Zellweger appears in this movie for roughly five seconds with zero dialogue as one of Troy’s one night stands. Another reason to hate Troy – he doesn’t call Renee Zellweger back! I gasped when I saw her, rewound, and mentally shamed Ben Stiller for relegating such a demeaning role to Renee! I am wildly late, but about two weeks ago I found out Renee Zellweger was not actually British but is in fact from TEXAS. You know the gif of Tanisha from Bad Girls Club whispering wow as she wipes a tear from her eye? That was me.