Two decades ago, actress Wynona Ryder donned a graduation gown, stood at a podium and, as Lelaina Pierce in the movie Reality Bites, gave a college commencement speech that, in a few sentences, managed to probe two extremes and the ambiguous space in between.
“And they wonder why those of us in our 20s refuse to work an 80-hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMWs,” Pierce says defiantly to random hoots and cheers from the audience during the movie’s opening scene. “Why we aren’t interested in the counterculture they invented, as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes. But the question remains: What are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is…,” Pierce pauses with a scared, nervous look on her face. Thumbing through her notes unable to find the next line, she gives up and finishes her thought, “The answer is, I don’t know.” The crowd cheers and Pierce’s worried look turns into a big smile.
Released in 1994, Reality Bites has always been pegged a Gen-X film that captures the trendy apathy of 1990s youth and young adult culture—a generation typically remembered for convening at coffee houses (read “Starbucks”) to philosophize (read “complain”) about the materialistic culture that their yuppie parents happily submerged them in while sipping lattes and specialty coffees with names too long to properly pronounce. This pent-up angst was usually expressed to the ambient sounds of moody garage or grunge rock. The whole period was moody, that was the fad. And, as a teen of the ’90s, it was great. That attitude was our rebel yell of sorts. And that’s probably why I’ve loved this movie for 19 years.
As a teenager in 1994, I loved the depth of the four main characters—Lelaina (Ryder), Troy (Ethan Hawke), Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), and Sammy (Steve Zahn)—and how the movie accurately captured the culture, the sarcasm, the cynicism, and the angst of the time. Today, though, I appreciate the movie a little differently. Reality Bites is not a movie like 1990’s Mindwalk; it isn’t a film intended to spur intellectual inquiry. It’s too crude or raw for that. But the film does capture the struggle and growing pains of human transformation quite nicely.
Reality Bites looks at the difficulties of being authentic in a society where you’re expected to bloom into adulthood, maturity, and a solid work ethic by a certain age—23 to be exact—whether you like it or not. It explores the experience of being caught between two polarities—certainty and ambivalence—and the collision of these two extremes in the quest toward true identity and a genuine sense of self and purpose. It looks at how one can slip easily between these two poles along the way and how authenticity is constantly challenged through encounters with the other, forcing personal growth. Above all, the movie’s overarching message reminds us that, in addition to striking a healthy balance between these two poles, meaningfulness matters. Meaningfulness in our actions and decisions is an important part of the maturing process and it’s what brings genuine fulfillment in life.
Ryder’s character is the one primarily caught between the two opposing forces at work in this movie. She hails from an affluent family that’s had its share of divorce and dysfunction, but is pulled in by the idealism and apathy shared by her circle of friends (and their generation). When Lelaina’s hardworking father, a man who’s devoted most of his life to the same employer, hands her a gas card and the keys to a BMW, formerly used by his new wife, offering both as graduation presents, he says, “I’m not going to sit here and listen again to some strange, ethical argument about a damn car. Now it’s got four wheels, it runs well, and, little darlin’, after you’ve been in the real world for a while, you’re going to appreciate that car.” To which her friend Troy—an irreverent grunge rocker and philosophizing slacker who’s latched on tightly to the bliss he finds in his constant state of ambiguity—adds, “And, yeah, think of all those starving children in Africa who don’t even have cars.”
Lelaina shares an apartment with her friend, Vickie, another 20-something caught between the responsibility of being a retail manager and the irreverent apathy of the day as she floats through a series of meaningless one-night-stands for the sake of the passion it brings, plunging her into a constant state of fear that she’ll contract AIDS. When Troy temporarily moves into the girls’ apartment after getting fired from his 12th job as a newsstand attendant for stealing a candy bar while working, ambiguity enters their lives in a more pronounced manner and Lelaina, in particular, is forced to learn to deal with Troy and his outlook. “He will turn this place into a den of slack,” she tells Vickie. In addition to Troy, Lelaina and Vickie have another friend, Sammy, who’s more transient than Troy and who’s struggling with his own sense of identity as a gay man afraid to fully open up and be his true self.
A budding documentarian who films the lives of her friends as a project, Lelaina meets Michael, vice president of visual programming at In Your Face TV, a music channel quick to turn societal issues into fads and fashion statements (anyone for a $75 red-and-blue bandana designed by Donna Karan that was inspired by the Los Angeles gang wars?). Played by Ben Stiller, who also directed Reality Bites, Michael is Troy’s antithesis. He’s a well-connected, successful executive who plays by the rules and who can never fully express himself or his thoughts beyond clichés, which he always fumbles through awkwardly—his tragic, albeit comedic, flaw. As Lelaina’s relationship with Michael deepens and the embodiment of linear, do-what-you’re-told thinking takes a stronger hold of her attitudes, Troy grows jealous and, pretty soon, Lelaina’s caught in a love triangle with the two men and what each one represents.
In this dynamic, Lelaina explores the depths of both extremes—the depths of certainty and definiteness with Michael, and the depths of ambivalence and ambiguity with Troy. With Michael, she learns that blind faith in security has its pitfalls. The raw authenticity of the documentary she’s making about her friends’ lives, for example, is chopped up and cheapened by the TV network after Michael shows his bosses her tapes. The network strips away the humanness of her project emphasizing, instead, the comedy and “coolness” of her friends’ daily lives. In the film, Michael explains the reasoning behind the edits: “You have this great piece of work and you have this audience, these kids, and it’s like trying to feed them meatloaf or something and they don’t want to eat it, right? So you’re going to have to give it to them like ‘here comes the plane, it’s coming to the hanger, open up the hanger’ but it’s still meatloaf.” In other words, in the real world, depth and authenticity are hard to market if they’re not cloaked in novelty.
In this dynamic, Lelaina also learns how self-righteous, cynical, hurtful, and hollow ambiguity can be as Troy meanders through unemployment and meaningless encounters with women while coping with his father’s terminal illness. When Troy’s dad found out he had cancer, Troy explains that his dad took him to the beach and gave him a “big, pink sea shell and he says to me, ‘Son, the answers are all inside of this.’ And I’m all like, ‘What?’ But then I realized… I realized that the shell’s empty. There’s no point to any of this. It’s all just a… a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes. So I take pleasure in the details. A Quarter Pounder with cheese, those are good. The sky about 10 minutes before it starts to rain. The moment when your laughter becomes a cackle.” These philosophical sensitivities harden, however, every time Troy’s deeply rattled by vulnerability and, in self-protection, he insults Lelaina and grows aloof whenever he feels forced to engage with her on a more intimate, genuine level. His father’s passing forces him to realize that he needs to walk the talk of the authenticity that he preaches and stop casting off meaningfulness out of fear.
Taken at face value, it’s hard to view this movie as enriching or anything more than a romantic chick flick from the ’90s. But when you look a little deeper at the issues each character faces and how they find that their true self flourishes whenever they are mindful of the decisions they make and how these decisions impact others, you start to realize that Reality Bites‘ writer Helen Childress tapped into deeper themes in this work, including that fearful walk we all take along the fine line between self-protection and genuinely merging with others.
“I just don’t understand why things can’t go back to normal at the end of the half-hour, like on The Brady Bunch or something,” Lelaina says to Troy at one point in the film.
“Well, ’cause Mr. Brady died of AIDS,” Troy replies. “Things don’t work out like that.”
“But I was really going to be something by the age of 23,” she says.
“Honey, all you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself.”
“I don’t know who that is anymore.”
Do we ever, really?