Was I Wrong?: Reality Bites
When Reality Bites was released in 1994, I was part of its target demographic of Gen Xers. So it’s probably not surprising that the movie really spoke to me in a way few movies ever have. At that point in my life, I could strongly relate to Ben Stiller’s slacker romantic comedy-drama. But almost 20 years later, I wondered if it would still hold the same appeal.
In 1994, I was in my early 20s. I had recently graduated from college and struggled to find a job during a recession. So I could relate to the job woes of the characters in Reality Bites. I knew the thrill of making $400/week and feeling like your financial worries were over. And I had a friend who was a manager at The Gap.
Basically, the characters in Reality Bites were a lot like me and my friends only played by pretty Hollywood people. We may not have broken into spontaneous dance in gas stations, but we were every bit as silly. We had the same reverence for pop culture (big surprise) and oh brother were we ironic!
Singles had come out a couple years before and attempted to speak to Gen-Xers. Friends would soon be on TV with another cast of 20-somethings. But nothing else quite captured the voice of my generation (for better or worse) quite like Reality Bites. It was like my generation’s The Graduate, although admittedly not nearly as good.
So, yeah. I really liked Reality Bites. I won’t go so far as to say I loved it, because the love triangle annoyed me even then (more on that soon). But I liked it a lot. And I played the soundtrack over and over. I even had the poster until someone jacked it from my collection.
But I’m not that same guy any more. I’ve got two kids and a whole new set of worries. The things that occupied my time in my 20s seem trivial to me now. Would I still be able to relate to a Gen X movie in my early 40s?
As it turns out, yes. But obviously not in the same way. Back then, the characters’ concerns were my concerns. And they were immediate. I was in the moment with these characters as they struggled to find love, rent and their place in the world… which was frequently in front of the TV.
Watching the movie today, I was a lot less sympathetic to Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder’s character). Back then, I related to the catch-22 of needing experience to get a job but not being able to get experience without a job. The scene where she works at a fast food restaurant hit especially close to home.
But now, I couldn’t help but be critical of most of Lelaina’s decisions. She may have had a lousy boss, but getting herself fired from a pretty swanky job in TV with nothing else lined up was a really bone-headed move. And was charging her rent to her dad’s gas card really preferable to working at The Gap? Don’t even get me started on the bit where she runs up a huge phone bill talking to a “psychic friend”.
Then there is her love interest, Troy Dyer (played by Ethan Hawke). Troy was a grade-A douchebag. He is dismissive to everyone around him. Supposedly, he’s some kind of genius. But there is little to no evidence in the film. He loses his job because he got caught stealing a Snickers bar and spends most of the movie crashing on Lelaina’s couch. In spite of that, he is downright nasty to her at almost every turn.
Back then, that really annoyed me. I would have much preferred seeing Lelaina end up with the nice guy (played by Ben Stiller) who wasn’t so hip. But was still cool enough to have a Dr. Zaius doll on his desk. Not to mention the fact he let her off the hook when she smashed his car. Even though I liked the film, I never understood what Lelaina saw in Troy when there was a perfectly nice, successful alternative.
These days, I am more forgiving of that particular aspect of the movie. Girls like Lelaina always went for douchebags like Troy. It’s one of the details the movie got right.
What I liked about Reality Bites was that it felt very timely and I could relate to the characters. Today, neither of those things are true. Reality Bites feels very dated. It’s a relic of it’s time. And I can’t relate to the kids and their relatively trivial problems any more.
But I still found myself enjoying Reality Bites a great deal. The connection I once felt with the movie and the characters has been replaced by feelings of nostalgia. Instead of reminding me of myself and my friends, the movie now reminds me of a simpler time that seemed very complex.
It’s impossible for me to be truly objective about Reality Bites because it struck such a chord with me when I first saw it. But I would like to think that even if you weren’t in your 20s in 1994, you would still find a lot to enjoy.
The love triangle is as true now as it ever was. Kids coming out of college still struggle to find their way. The jokes are still funny and the soundtrack is still lots of fun. And it’s still a release to break into spontaneous dance in a quickie mart every time My Sharona comes on. Or so I imagine.
So, was I wrong for liking Reality Bites? Nope. My relationship with the movie has definitely changed over the years. But it’s still a movie I can relate to and enjoy.