Original release: February 18th, 1994
Running time: 99 minutes
Director: Ben Stiller
Writer: Helen Childress
Cast: Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn
The answer is…I don’t know: 00:00:00 to 00:01:17
In the early 9Os, when my biggest worries revolved around how to get out of gym class on Fridays and who to hang out with at lunch times, the life that lay ahead of me seemed fairly simple. I’d go on to college and university where I’d study art and literature, work as a writer and eventually settle down with a really cool guy somewhere and we’d be happy together.
What I never planned on were all the things that would happen in between those dreams. Things like failing exams, having to come out to my folks, leaving home and not having enough money to cover rent. That’s what “they” never tell you about and that’s what the movies that always inspired me always left out. Or did they?
Reality Bites, released in early 1994 when I was in my final year at high school, was a film I remember being eager to see. Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and newcomer Ben Stiller (who also directed), its story focused on Lelaina who’s shooting a documentary about her friends. It would touch on some of the challenges they faced with finding jobs, relationships and with each other. Lelaina herself summarized it well with:
I guess that was all I needed to hear to be able to relate to it at the time. After all, I sure as hell didn’t have any role models of my own to look up to, unless of course you count dead rock idols and movie stars who died too young. The film opens with Lelaina’s graduation speech, which in itself as another great piece of writing from Helen Childress and immediately it tells us something about what it was like to finishing school in the early 90s and about to enter the “real world”.
Using Lelaina’s documentary footage, we’re then introduced to her friends. There’s underachiever and musician Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), promiscuous and eventual GAP employee Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and closeted and celibate Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn). While Lelaina takes a job as production assistant to a rude and obnoxious TV host so she work her way up towards being a documentarian, Troy goes from one underpaid job to the next and has to deal with his father suffering from cancer. Meanwhile Vickie’s numerous sexual encounters now leave her worrying if she’s contracted HIV from one of her partners who recently tested positive and Sammy avoids having a relationship so he won’t have to come out to his conservative parents.
There’s also sexual tension between Lelaina and Troy as they remain reluctant to face their feelings for each other, but these feelings rush to the surface when Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) enters the picture. He’s the epitome of yuppie and seems to be at a place in his life that these recent graduates can’t really relate to, yet he’s interested in Lelaina and her documentary, especially as he’s an executive for an MTV-like cable channel called In Your Face and could possibly get it aired on his network.
What I never realized at the time was the way in which subtle themes are woven into the story. For example, there’s the way in which the then-emerging reality TV genre is depicted (and even parodied) in the film. Back then what we knew about reality television was what we drew from COPS and MTV’s The Real World that introduced us to the camcorder look and cinéma vérité feel that we’re now so familiar with.
There’s also the way in which things keep popping up in their lives and in between the plans they’ve made for themselves. This is something I started to experience once I’d finished school, left home and was out in the real world. It wasn’t until then I truly understood what Helen Childress and Douglas Coupland were trying to address to with Reality Bites and Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture. It wasn’t until then I saw for myself that I, who was never part of anything before, was actually part of something all along. Generation X.
This is the generation born after the Western Post–World War II baby boom, typically those from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, which I fell neatly into. Often referred to as the MTV generation, we were the ones who experienced the emergence of music videos, new wave music, electronic music, synthpop, glam rock, heavy metal, glam metal, punk rock, alternative rock, grunge, rap and hip hop. We embraced social diversity in all its forms, regardless of race, class, religion, ethnicity, culture, language, gender identity, and sexual orientation. And unlike our parents, we had no faith in leaders like Thatcher, Bush or Clinton and instead tried to bring about change through economic, media and consumer means. We saw the fall of the Berlin Wall with hope for a new future for Germany. We were also the ones who experienced the outbreak of the AIDS virus but turned the emergence of this epidemic into an opportunity to inform and educate about safer sex and promote a greater understanding of sexual diversity in our rapidly changing society.
As I look at it now, Generation X was the last leap forward in every possible way. In terms of music, literature, fashion and film, it was the time before what I now call Generation Y R They So Stupid, soon to be followed by Generation Zzzz. A film like Reality Bites, together with Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992) and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), addresses a point that was so true then, and is still true now; that each succeeding generation continues to be baffled by its predecessor, as they are by it.
In light of that, I wonder, how can Generation Y and Z be saved from what I see as a return to homogeneity and a conditioning of the mind through the mutations of reality television and distorted perceptions of social media and security? Almost 20 years after Reality Bites I guess Lelaina never found the answer to what she first asked in the film, and neither have we, the slackers of the 80s and 90s… “How can we repair all the damage we inherited?”
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .