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.

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Posted on September 12, 2012, in Movies, reviews, Was I Wrong? and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I never saw this one, and I’m a gen X’er as well. I was a bit behind my contemporaries however due to a 5 yr. stint in the Navy. I was only half way through college by the time you all were graduating, and I really didn’t go to many movies during those years. I’ll have to look for this on Netflix or something.

    I’m glad you revised your view of the “girl-goes-for-douche” scenes. Young girls ALWAYS seem to gravitate towards the bad-boy, jerk, douchebags. Of course later in life the word best describing this sort of dude is loser, but young hunnies seem to love them without fail. Never understood that but it happens so often it’s got to be a universal truth don’t you think?

    One of my favorite coming of age type comedies is Dazed and Confused. Granted I was a grade-schooler during the 70’s but looking back they had great music and the movie struck a chord.


    • As it turns out, I also recently watched Dazed and Confused. It is probably a better movie than Reality Bites speaking objectively. But I am biased in favor of RB because it so closely matches my life experience. Both had great soundtracks and both have a certain nostalgia factor for me.

      20 years later, I have no doubt that either life has beaten Troy down or he has learned some important life lessons and dropped the attitude. Odds are, he turned into a burn out. The movie shows him well on his way.

      If you catch up with RB, be sure and let me know what you think. I’ll be interested to hear the POV of a fellow Gen X’er who didn’t see the movie during our hey day.


  2. I saw Reality Bites on opening night at The Biograph (the theatre Dillinger was leaving when he was gunned down) in Chicago, just a little less than a year after moving there. I was working crappy retail jobs, looking for work in theatre, and generally having a blast as a 23 year old in a great city. A movie about kids just out of college? check. Winona Ryder? check. Alternative music soundtrack? check. I was definitely part of the intended target audience.

    Unfortunately, I kind of felt betrayed by the film. As a movie which was ostensibly about and targetted at “Generation X,” why were the main characters so unlikable? Sure, Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn seemed like nice kids, but all three members of the movie’s romantic triangle were kind of douche bags. I came to the conclusion that the movie had actually been made to criticize instead of celebrate GenX.

    Reality Bites got things wrong by inches.

    Stiller was 5-6 years older than Hawke and Ryder, a small gap for those of us in our 40s, but a significant difference for kids just out of college. Heck, Stiller was older than my big brother. So the conflict in the film appeared to me to be between two sub-generations.

    The film was mostly set in Houston. Ummmmm…why? Austin is RIGHT THERE. It is an artistic town which would’ve been much kinder to these characters. The fact that they were living in Houston made me question their supposed intelligence.

    The film that resonates with me as more true to Gen X is Richard Linklater’s plotless 1991 debut, “Slacker,” which was actually set in Austin and featured a cast of locals. Perhaps the fact that I spent the early 90s in a small southern college town, hanging out with actors, musicians, and artists has something to do with that. Nine years later, “High Fidelity” (set in Chicago) also nails the spirit of the Gen X I knew quite well as it was entering its 30s.


    • I actually saw Reality Bites before it was released in an empty theater with a few slacker friends. That was very common for me in the early 90s and it was a great way to see movies. I had no expectations coming in. Commercials hadn’t started running on TV yet. Most people hadn’t even heard of it. A lot of times, as was the case here, we didn’t even know what the movie was about.

      Under these conditions, it was pretty easy for a movie to pleasantly surprise me. It really would have been impossible for Reality Bites to disappoint me because I had no expectations going in. The soundtrack hadn’t even hit record stores yet. When I “discovered” these movies, I would form a personal relationship with them. (Swingers was another example of this.) I hoped they would catch on with the public at large once they were released and they almost never did.

      With Reality Bites, I was always aware of the flaws in the romantic triangle. It kept me from ever fully giving my heart to the film. But in my case, it didn’t get the details wrong by inches. Drug use aside, it nailed a bullseye. None of my friends were as aggressively douchy as Troy, but I knew people who were. Other than that (and the Aids public service message that was shoe-horned in), Reality Bites was a pretty accurate celebration/criticism of me and my friends at that time.

      That’s part of why I was very reluctant to go back and rewatch it all these years later. I was worried about what the movie would reflect back at me. Yeah, I was a typical self-important 23-year-old just like the characters in the movie. And that makes me wince a little. But, I decided I could laugh at that. Now, instead of reminding me of myself, it reminds me of how things used to be. It’s a nostalgia trip that few other movies can provide.

      There is actually a reason behind the movie’s location. After Singles mined the Gen X territory and bombed, the studios were reluctant to make another Gen X movie. Stiller was able to convince the Film Commission of Texas to fund a location scouting trip to Houston despite the fact there was no studio behind it, no budget and no cast. Basically, Houston paid to have them when no one else would.

      I have to admit, I have never seen Slacker. I’m kicking myself because it was on a couple of weeks ago. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for them to rerun it.

      As for the love triangle, Stiller kind of forced that on the movie. Originally, that character was just another boss. He was older and not a love interest. The movie had less structure and focused more on the ensemble. That probably would have been a better movie, but Stiller wasn’t comfortable directing it. So he imposed the love triangle and rewrote a character for himself to play.


    • Zahn and Garofalo seemed to be in a different, more interesting movie than the Douche Triangle. Their problems seemed to be more serious and interesting (AIDS scare aside). I really liked how the ironic coming out rehersal was contrasted with the actual post-coming out somberness, and how Zahn’s character didn’t know what was going to happen next, but at the same time he was relieved. That storyline was completely dropped after that. No dating montage, no talking head, nothing.
      Garofalo’s character was the only one of them who was aware of her intimacy issues and what caused them and trying to figure out if and how she wanted to work on them, without being whiny and self-pitying. She also realized that sometimes you just gotta do your crappy McJob, and that even shitty non-creative jobs can have their good sides. And that friendship ends when your friend dismisses your life choices.
      Those two are still likeable and relatable characters. The other 3 are just infuriatingly annoying. Stiller’s character was pretty harmless, but the fact that he would run after Lalaina and pick a fight with her douchey friend kind of made me lose all respect for him. I mean, you’re what, late 20s, early 30s? At that age you should know better than to run after someone who makes you compete with Hobo Ethan Hawke. If that is what she’s into, you dodged a bullet, buddy.
      And btw, young women may be into douches (because without enough life experience it’s easy to mistake cockiness for intelligence), but young guys are just as guilty of falling for the Manic Pixie Dream Girls, or as I like to call them, “female douchebags. Because without enough life experience, it’s easy to mistake insanity for charme, especially when it hides behind a pretty face.
      Let’s just agree that young people in general are idiots when it comes to relationships.


  3. I re-watched this movie tonight. I’ll always love Ryder, but the characters were just as unsympathetic as I remembered, and without really being all that smart or funny. Sheesh, throw us a bone, please. Still, I did watch the whole thing, didn’t I?

    I think after a youth sitting through movie after movie and tv show after tv show about how awesome the baby boomers were, I guess I’d hoped any film meant to represent our generation wouldn’t portray us as stupid selfish jerks.

    But maybe the fact that we allowed it means we’re actually not as douchey as those boomers.


    • Watching Reality Bites in my forties, I had less sympathy for the characters than ever before. I disliked Ethan Hawke’s character when I was in my twenties. But now, I dislike all the characters. And yet, I still enjoyed the movie. How much of that was nostalgia? Probably a lot. How much was Ryder in her prime? Definitely a lot. The soundtrack? Also a factor.

      I don’t feel like Reality Bites defined our generation. So it’s okay that they are all stupid selfish jerks. In a way, we came off better than the boomers who got to make movies like The Big Chill that celebrated themselves to the point of embarrassment. But then again, what film-makers do we have speaking for us? At one point, I think it was supposed to be Kevin Smith. If so, I’m embarassed.

      Anyway, back in the 20s when I really identified myself with Gen X, I could relate to and thoroughly enjoyed Reality Bites. I recognized its short comings, but looked past them because there were so many things about it I did enjoy. Now, I’m kind of embarassed by that. But I can also own it because as youth movies go, it’s pretty watchable, you can dance to it, and Ryder is just so darn crushable.



        What bothers me the most about Reality Bites is Winona Ryder’s character (an art/film major) complaining about making $400 a week in 1994 dollars when a lot of newly recent college grads are barely making $400 a week in 2015 dollars.

        The main problem of the film is that the two major collaborators, Ryder and Stiller (and perhaps the screenwriter Helen Childress) had privileged upbringings. Winona Ryder had bought, like, three houses by the time she was 22 and Stiller’s parents were both successful actors.

        Janeane Garafolo said she “didn’t get,” the film and assumed it was because she was older than her character. I think it’s because Garafolo didn’t come from the same amount of wealth as Stiller and Ryder. That being said, I do like Stiller in most things he has done and believe he’s talented. Ryder is a complete hit or miss (I have a theory the quality of her performance depends on the director, her investment in the project, and if she’s mentally well at the time of filming. Examples being “Dracula,” and “Boys,” two bad Winona performances for two different reasons).

        Lelaina is annoying because there’s no character in the film to keep her in check and call her out. She’s partly called out by Garafolo’s character, but not to the extent that her character needs to be. It’s like none of the collaborators thought to give her an actual “reality check.”Especially when she makes no effort to find a job. I realize she was depressed and this can become difficult, but the storyline is literally never resolved and instead is passed over in favor of concluding the love triangle (a love triangle conclusion that seems to magically cure her depression). She’s still unemployed at the end of the film. This is why the movie is partly irritating. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a love story or a story about a recent college grad adjusting to adulthood while dealing with depression and her own immaturity? The story shifts toward the third act. We get a love story. I wanted closure on Lalaina sucking it up by doing paper work under florescent lights in a cubicle, but also showing the audience that she is still intent on becoming a documentary filmmaker and maturing as an artist… I don’t know, maybe this is just a millennial perspective on the movie.

        Then there’s Ethan Hawke’s character who treats Lelaina like crap, yet we’re supposed to root for him to end up with her. I remember watching Reality Bites when I was 16 and wanted them so badly to end up together, but when I rewatched it at 23, I thought she should have ended up alone (but it’s 1994, so that would never happen) and that even though Stiller’s character was wrong for her, he wasn’t that bad of a guy.


  4. Movies from the 1990s You Used To Like/Love

    Post by Wolf Hawkfield no1 NZ poster on Feb 28, 2017 at 7:52pm

    Feb 28, 2017 at 4:50pm Cela said:
    I never liked it, but I hope Reality Bites eventually gets taken down a peg. Product of the times, but I hated everyone in that movie.

    Well The Nostalgia Chick buried the film six feet deep as she rightfully pointed out how a film featuring a group whinny spoiled shits who act like total c***s towards everyone because they are resentful and bored at life because they faced few challenges growing up is downright insulting to anyone having to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

    Post by Hit Girl on 5 hours ago

    Feb 28, 2017 at 4:50pm Cela said:
    I never liked it, but I hope Reality Bites eventually gets taken down a peg. Product of the times, but I hated everyone in that movie.

    Yep. I hate that movie.

    Ethan Hawke’s character is an utter prick. The audience is supposed to feel sorry for him at the end because his dad dies. But by then it’s too late, since he’s spent 99% of the movie being a dick. Janeane Garafalo’s character is worried about getting HIV, but seems to be proud of the fact she sleeps around with random guys. This was 1994 when the dangers of HIV were well known and there was really no excuse for such irresponsible behavior. Ben Stiller’s character bizarrely changes for no apparent reason. He starts off as a decent guy who puts Ethan Hawke’s moron of a character in his place, only to turn inexplicably into a douche himself, although the version of Winona’s Ryder’s film he allows MTV to edit, is no less stupid and pretentious than her film was to begin with. I don’t even know what Winona Ryder’s character was supposed to be. I don’t get what she did during the sequence where she fills cars with petrol and keeps swiping that credit card or whatever it was.

    The only parts of the film I like were Steve Zahn’s character, and that Lisa Loeb song.


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