MOVIE REVIEW | Reality Bites (1994)


“At the beep, please leave your name, number, and a brief justification for the ontological necessity of modern man’s existential dilemma, and we’ll get back to you.”

I like Lena Dunham’s Girls.  I don’t think it’s some brilliant game changer or masterpiece, but it’s well written, well acted, and tells stories from what seems like a pretty genuine perspective that we don’t see much on telly.  But I spent the first season hate-watching Girls.  How could I be expected to like these entitled, oblivious, arrogant moles?  But during season two, I realised something.  The show wasn’t trying to convince me to like them.  Dunham and her writers knew it was a show about entitled, oblivious, arrogant moles, they were in on it.

Why am I banging on about the TV show Girls in a review for the movie Reality Bites?  Because after re-watching Reality Bites for the first time in 20 years, it makes the characters in Girls look like newly arrived immigrants in the 20s, busting a gut, doing anything to make a better life for themselves than what they had in the old country.

After giving her damn-the-man college valedictorian speech, budding documentary film maker Lelaina (Wynona Ryder) and her friends retreat to a building roof top where they drink beer, smoke cigarettes and wax lyrical about having no idea what to do with their lives.  All captured on Lelaina’s camcorder, we get her best friend, the slightly quirky and barley alternative Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), the kind of wacky, but not really, Sammy (Steve Zahn), and the brooding, intellectual dreamboat, Troy (Ethan Hawke).

After a minor car accident, Lelaina meets Michael (Ben Stiller, who also directed the movie).  Because this is the 90s, Michael’s convertible, car phone, slick haircut, suit and tie mean he is the worst thing in the world, a yuppie.  Despite that, there’s a connection between Michael and Lelaina, so instead of suing each other over the accident, they flirt and decide to go on a date.  While Lelaina and Troy have never hooked up during their college years, there’s an obvious chemistry between them.  So when Michael shows up at Lelaina’s house to pick her up for a date and finds Troy crashing on their couch, the hacky love triangle is set in motion.

Here’s the thing with Reality Bites, I have no idea of it thinks its characters are the epitome of cool and is right there with them, or if it’s pointing out just how ridiculous and self involved they are.  Either way, I think it’s a weird kind of brilliant.  The fact that screenwriter Helen Childress was in college and only 19 when she wrote Reality Bites makes me think it might be the former.

Only two kinds of people could write a character like Troy, either a love struck, clueless teen who believes his bullshit.  Or someone who was love struck by someone like Troy years ago, and has gained enough perspective in the years since to laugh at his ridiculous faux-intellectual schtick.  Troy is the kind of guy who reads enough to quote Shakespeare and Neitzsche in a glib, pompous throw away tone, but never read enough to actually know what any of it means.

I’m of a borderline age where I’m either a really young Gen-X, or super old Gen-Y.  So when I saw Reality Bites on new release video as a 15 year old, I remember liking it, but not seeing it as some great representation of my generation.  Seeing it again now at 34, it’s pretty much impossible to give a shit about these assholes and their inconsequential problems.  Whenever they were obsessing over the latest crisis in their lives, all I could think was a gloriously sarcastic, “boo-fucking-hoo”.

None of that is to say I think Reality Bites is a bad movie.  I just think it’s a very specific movie that you need to see at a very specific time in your life.  If you’re aged between 15 and 20 (25, tops) and have never seen Reality Bites, jump right in.  The extreme 90’s look and feel of it aside, there’s probably a lot for you to relate to.

If you’re 25 or older, give it a miss unless you like the idea of hating four characters for 100 minutes.  If you saw it years ago and remember liking it, leave that fond memory be, and never watch it again.  Not only is Reality Bites the kind of movie that needs to be seen at a specific age to love it, it’s the kind of movie that you have to re-watch regularly to keep that nostalgic appreciation alive.  ‘Coz once that love is gone, it’s gonna be gone forever.

Reality Bites
Directed By – Ben Stiller
Written By – Helen Childress

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